Student dissent against SJT speech surges, but officials take no action

With just more than four weeks until Commencement weekend, senior Natalie Wessel said she feels “cheated” by the conclusion to her four years at GW.

About the selection of University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg as Commencement’s keynote speaker, the soon-to-be-graduate said, “I think because President Trachtenberg has spoken at every graduation prior, it feels like we’re not having a speaker at all.”

Wessel said every student she’s spoken to about the subject feels the same way, but she’s hopeful the administration will get a prominent, outside speaker during the next month.

But despite the staunch opposition from many students and parents against elevating Trachtenberg’s “charge to the class” speech to the keynote address, some senior administrators say people are overreacting and that clamoring for a new speaker is futile.

GW community-wide reaction

Since The Hatchet broke the news Wednesday that GW’s outgoing president would headline this May’s University-wide graduation ceremony, graduating seniors have vocalized signficant criticism. Impassioned phone calls and e-mails to school officials have abounded. There have been flyers and posters in senior residence halls, hard-copy petitions, online petitions and anti-Trachtenberg-speech Facebook groups garnering upwards of 900 members.

Coverage by The Washington Post, Washington Post Radio, the Examiner and the popular D.C.-based blog Wonkette – among other media – has also noted the resistance to the decision.

Priscilla Monico, a senior, has a petition posted to her door at Ivory Tower 710 protesting the keynote speaker selection. More than 300 people have signed petitions – about 220 submitted via e-mail and 100 written by hand on the door, she said.

The petitioner has banded together a student committee comprised of creators of the Facebook groups which oppose the speech. She said she has called Jim Hess, executive director of University Events, to discuss her group’s ideas but hasn’t heard back from the administrator. Should Hess not return her call, Monico said she may stage a sit-in in his Rice Hall office Monday.

“I would hope they give us the respect and that they wouldn’t ignore us,” she said. “We are future alumni. We’ve paid our dues, and now the University ought to give us the respect that we are giving them.”

Nineteen 8-1/2-by-11-inch sheets of paper adorn the brick wall of a townhouse adjacent to Ivory Tower, reading “P-R-O-T-E-$-T T-R-A-C-H-T-E-N-B-E-R-G.” Senior Eric Mausner, who posted the signs, said, “We are the most expensive school in the country and we get to hear a retirement speech.”

About 530 people have signed an online petition asking that comedian and late-night host Stephen Colbert replace Trachtenberg as the keynote act. Other students have jokingly voiced their opinions on Facebook groups, calling the 68-year-old a “con-artist” and the “spawn of Satan.”

Clash between administrators and students, parents

Some students say that the decision to let Trachtenberg give the keynote address shows a disconnect between GW’s bureaucracy and its student body.

Sophomore Ryan Smith, who won’t graduate until May 2009, said he empathizes with upperclassmen.

“I’m not even a senior, and I feel your pain,” he wrote on an anti-Trachtenberg-speech Facebook page. “That is ridiculous. Something like this WOULD happen at GW … figures.”

Smith did not return a phone call as of Sunday evening, but the creator of the Web page he posted on said the sophomore’s comments are representative of many disenchanted students.

“I think that is a sentiment that a lot of people are feeling because it’s hard to not constantly be comparing our university and administrators to other universities, … (and) I think there are other schools that are more student-focused than our own,” senior Jessica Rutstein said.

“Some people really feel cheated … they’re really feeling like it’s a personal attack against them – that the administration isn’t looking out for the greater good of the students,” she added. Rutstein said, though, that she is optimistic that officials will heed students’ concerns.

Parents have also complained, but not nearly in the numbers of graduating seniors. Director of Parent Services Rodney Johnson has received several dozen angry phone calls and e-mails, and said he has passed on specific criticisms to his superiors.

Commencement should mean more than just the keynote speech, said Johnson, among other administrators. But he said many parents compete over whose child had a more high-profile graduation speaker.

“They want someone who’s ‘famous’ and who’s political – as one mother said, ‘(so) we can tell other parents that this person was at my Commencement and was better than the one at your Commencement’ … They’re not upset with Trachtenberg because he’s going to speak, but they’ve heard him speak already and they want someone else,” Johnson said.

Administrators responding to student protest

Trachtenberg said he hasn’t personally heard any complaints and thinks that student reaction has been positive.

Out of two letters one was positive and one negative, so, he jokingly said, they canceled each other out. When approached by students on campus late last week, he said he has only received praise for his decision to be the keynote speaker.

The outgoing president added that he has heard of the Facebook groups contesting his speech but doesn’t put any weight in them. He received four prank calls around 2 a.m. Friday to his house, which has a listed phone number that has been posted on Facebook pages. He said the calls were probably from the same person, whom he thought was “a little inebriated.”

“These people need to get a life, need to get a hobby.” he said of his detractors. “Get out of here. It’s ridiculous.”

In a Washington Post article on the front page of the Metro section Friday, Trachtenberg likened himself to a “virtuous Don Imus” – drawing a comparison with the radio talk show host who came under fire for calling members of the Rutgers women’s basketball team “nappy-headed hos.” The article noted that he laughed when asked about student reaction.

Americans have constitutionally protected freedom of speech, and opposition to his speech has its place, Trachtenberg said. “(It’s) all part of healthy debate. It tells you something about the First Amendment … It’s ridiculous, but it’s also healthy. It’s ridiculous healthy debate.”

Other officials have been more receptive to criticism and less angered about opposition to the speech.

Graduates should understand that the keynote address is one minor component to Commencement, said Robert Chernak, senior vice president of Student and Academic Affairs.

“I can’t remember who my graduation speaker was at BU and can’t remember a word he said or she said … It’s not the single event that should make it or bring it in terms of a GW experience, and you’d hope the GW experience prepared people for life,” he said. “And dealing with disappointment that expectations aren’t met and how to deal with that in society is part of the GW education.”

University Marshal Jill Kasle, who is a lead organizer of the graduation events, said that when students have come to her office and e-mailed her with complaints about the decision, she takes a diplomatic stance.

“I’m old enough to know human nature and how people feel is how they feel. I’d never say people aren’t entitled to feel how they feel about it,” said Kasle, who is also an associate professor of public policy and public administration. “Students have reacted, I feel, intensely about this.”

Kasle said she hopes any demonstrations before or during Commencement are peaceful. She added that extreme action or language won’t do any good.

“I’ve worked with President Trachtenberg for a long time, and I don’t know if any positive change ever came out of anyone screaming at him.”

-Brandon Butler contributed to this report.

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