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Another surprising casualty in the War on Commencement Speakers

Another surprising casualty in the War on Commencement Speakers

Pro-gay marriage? Pro-illegal immigrant? That still may not be enough to get you a fair hearing on today's college campuses.

There's another casualty in the ongoing War on Commencement Speakers.

Former UC-Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau. (Image Source: Berkeleyside.com) Former UC-Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau. (Image Source: Berkeleyside.com)

This time it comes in the form of a former Chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley (UC-Berkeley), 25 year member of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology faculty as Chair of the Physics Department and then Dean of Science, and outspoken proponent of gay marriage and DREAM legislation in support of illegal aliens named Robert Birgeneau.

Why is it that Mr. Birgeneau has joined the ranks of Hirsi Ali, Christine Lagarde, Condoleeza Rice and others, and withdrawn from delivering a commencement address, at one of America's elite liberal arts colleges no less?

According to philly.com, Birgeneau declined the invitation to speak:

"following concerns expressed by Haverford students and several professors over his leadership during a 2011 incident when UC police used force on students protesting college costs...[Birgeneau] became controversial when students, as part of the Occupy movement, held non-violent protests and were subject to force by university police."

Haverford students and faculty had signed onto an open letter critical of Dr. Birgeneau, which precipitated Birgeneau's decision, writing:

"Many of us admire the work you have done on issues such as LGBT rights, affordable education and the plight of undocumented students. For these efforts and your scholarly work, we would welcome you at Haverford College as a Commencement speaker and honorary degree recipient.

We are, however, deeply disturbed by the events at UC Berkeley on November, 9th, 2011, as well as your statements that followed. They do not seem to fit with our values that see peace and community as things we must build in every moment. You supported UC Berkeley police in the use of extreme force against nonviolent protesters, asserted that linking arms is not a form of nonviolent protest, and suggested that the protesters got exactly what they were looking for. We doubt that any of those peaceful protesters were looking for broken ribs."

Occupy protesters. (Image Source: berkeleyside.com) Occupy protesters at UC-Berkeley. (Image Source: berkeleyside.com)

The drafters of the letter proceeded to list nine points on which Birgeneau would have to act prior to speaking at Haverford, or risk a push for revoking his invitation to speak. These points included supporting "reparations for the victims of the November 9th beatings and arrests," and writing "an open letter to Haverford students explaining your position on the events of November 9th, what you learned from them, how you have put what you learned into practice and how your actions have or have not been in line with the values of peace, non-violence, and political participation."

In 2011, Occupy protesters set up encampments at UC-Berkeley as part of a protest of escalating University of California tuition prices.

Birgeneau had warned the campus in a letter prior to the protests that:

"Any activities such as pulling fire alarms, occupying buildings, setting up encampments, graffiti, or other destructive actions that disrupt with anyone's ability to conduct regular activities -- go to class, study, carry out their research, etc. -- will not be tolerated."

When Occupy protesters refused to take the encampments down, linking arms in defiance of police officers, the following occurred:

According to the Huffington Post, several members of the 2011 protests were arrested and multiple tents were torn down by campus security. Members of the protest later filed suit against Birgeneau and others for the actions that took place.

In the days following the events at UC-Berkeley, Birgeneau expressed contrition for what had occurred, writing in part:

"I sincerely apologize for the events of November 9 at UC Berkeley and extend my sympathies to any of you who suffered an injury during these protests. As chancellor, I take full responsibility for these events and will do my very best to ensure that this does not happen again."

Yesterday, Haverford President Daniel Weiss wrote of Birgeneau's decision to decline his invitation to deliver the college's commencement address:

"The Board of Managers, campus colleagues, and I express our appreciation for the views of those who were opposed to Dr. Birgeneau's selection,” Weiss said in a letter to the campus community. “It is nonetheless deeply regrettable that we have lost an opportunity to recognize and hear from one of the most consequential leaders in American higher education. Though we may not always agree with those in positions of leadership, I believe that it is essential for us as members of an academic community to reaffirm our shared commitment to the respectful and mindful process by which we seek to learn through inquiry and intellectual engagement."

It appears that at this point, even if you support any or all of women's rights, gay marriage, illegal immigration, economic aid and democracy in the Middle East, you still may not get a fair hearing on today's college campuses.

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