Jeers at Commencement Convocation

May 24, 2010

Months ago, Sandra Soto was asked by her dean to be the faculty speaker at the graduation convocation last week for the University of Arizona's College of Social and Behavioral Sciences. Soto didn't know it at the time, but her commencement speech would closely follow the adoption of two new Arizona laws. One gives the police more authority to question anyone they believe may be in the United States illegally -- powers that critics say will lead to widespread ethnic profiling. The other bars ethnic studies in the state's public elementary and secondary schools.

Soto, associate professor of gender and women's studies and a scholar of Latino literary theory, said that she thought it was her "responsibility" at such a time to use her 10-minute address to critique the new laws. The response -- captured on YouTube -- has set off a debate over civility and over the nature of speeches at graduation events.

She was booed, jeered and heckled, with a few shouting personal comments (shouting at her to cut her hair, for example, and calling her expletives). Soto held her ground, and while pausing at times, finished her talk -- with many applauding. Soto related her critiques of these state actions to graduation by talking about how their education should prepare them to be "better public citizens." (Soto's text for her talk may be found here.)

Since the talk, Soto said she has received a barrage of e-mail messages, many of them hateful and some of them potentially threatening. Many such messages have also been posted on YouTube and on local Web sites that covered the speech.

Soto said that she had no regrets about speaking out. "My work is in Chicana cultural studies, so it's my obligation, if I am going to be up on a stage, I feel it is my absolute responsibility to address these issues."

She said that no one who knows her could have doubted that she would speak out, and that she was prepared for some booing, but was surprised by "how vitriolic" the e-mail messages have been since the talk. She said that she will turn over to authorities those that might be threatening, such as an e-mail suggesting that the sender "hopes you don't look both ways" while crossing the street.

Tucson, where the university is located, is "a liberal oasis" in the state, Soto said, and she realized that the family members of graduates would be from all over the state, including many who would be likely to disagree with her. But she said she didn't expect the tone of the criticism she received. She came to Arizona in 2001, turning down job offers at top research universities elsewhere. "People thought I was crazy to do it, but I did so because if I'm going to teach Chicana/Chicano studies, it makes sense to be in the Southwest," she said. Now, she's "not so sure I made the right choice," although she feels strongly about the need "to have a commitment to change these laws."

On blogs and news sites in Arizona, many of those posting comments have argued that Soto has no business talking about anything political at a graduation event. "These graduates should have been given congratulations for their dedication and encouragement for pursuing their career aspirations in these difficult times. Instead, they, and the captive audience of their parents and guests were force fed liberalism by this hardliner. At the very least, she needs a stern reprimand. I imagine she’s tenured and otherwise untouchable. She should be dismissed," wrote one. That drew a response calling on Arizonans to fight Soto by giving money to David Horowitz.

On a local television station's comment board, several viewers suggested that Soto "return to El Salvador." (She's actually from Texas, where her family has lived since Texas was Mexico, she said, and she's not sure why she's been identified as being from El Salvador.)

Another on that site wrote: "You seem to have forgotten, Professor, that this day and ceremony were for the STUDENTS and their families. It was supposed to be "Congratulations, Graduates" NOT "Showtime for Sandra and Her Pet Political Issue". Sandra Soto HIJACKED the ceremony for her own reasons and turned it, (or at least tried to turn it) into a one-sided political forum in which she gets to make HER points and champion HER position, UNCHALLENGED.... You DESERVED the reaction you provoked (and no doubt expected) and you owe everyone at that ceremony a sincere public apology."

While much of the Arizona blog reaction was critical of Soto and not of her hecklers, she has drawn more support from academics commenting on the situation.

Marisol LeBron, a Ph.D. student in American studies at New York University, said in a blog post that a majority of those weighing in have been "advancing the idea that universities and institutions of higher education should be depoliticized places where one goes to learn objective truths. Meanwhile, if you ask me, it's pretty inappropriate for an audience for presumably educated adults to boo a woman of letters."

LeBron added that the incident is typical of the way minority scholars are treated: "They get shouted down and told that they're advancing a narrow agenda or only telling half the story. The events that transpired were truly shameful, but unfortunately are becoming more common than not on college campuses. I applaud the stand that Soto and other educators in Arizona are taking despite the attempts to silence them. As Professor Soto urges us, we must fight for public education."

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