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December 17, 2001

President comments on commencement ceremonies

This past weekend, we had two commencements.

The first was on Friday and included students from the Colleges of Education, Natural Sciences and Mathematics, and Social Sciences and Interdisciplinary Studies.

The second commencement was on Saturday and included graduates from the Colleges of Business Administration, Arts and Letters, Health and Human Services, and Engineering and Computer Sciences. It is about that second commencement that I write to you.

The invited speaker at that commencement was Ms. Janis Besler Heaphy, the Publisher and President of the Sacramento Bee. Ms. Heaphy is an individual with a distinguished background in publishing. She has been with the Sacramento Bee for four years and prior to that was a senior vice president with the Los Angeles Times.

Ms. Heaphy chose to address the graduates about the essence of American freedom and civil liberties and the relationships of these to the events of September 11. As she got into the substance of her remarks, she was questioning various acts of the U.S. government relating to our judicial system, the retention of suspects, and freedom of the media, among other matters. The audience became restless and some booing and heckling broke out. At that point I intervened and called upon the audience to maintain the kind of respect for a speaker that everyone in the audience would want to have others maintain for them. The audience quieted down for the most part. A minute or two later, Ms. Heaphy made a point that a number of students apparently supported and then broke out in moderate applause. At this point, those in the audience who had been rude and interrupting broke out in what a newspaper reporter called "a chant clap," a phrase new to me. Again, I went to the rostrum. Ms. Heaphy said to me that she did not wish to continue. She had completed about three-quarters of her remarks. She returned to her seat.

I turned to the audience and said to them that today is about our graduates. Speakers at a commencement have a right to be heard, and our graduates have a right to hear them. I believe I said that in my many years of experience as a president, I had never seen behavior like this at a commencement, and it was the kind of behavior I will never forget. The commencement went on.

It should be very clear that it was the audience-the invited guests of the graduates-who interrupted the address. Our students were respectful with only a few exceptions, and they behaved well. We can be proud of them. As the students went through the line to receive their certificates of completion, a number of them came to the foot of the platform to say to Ms. Heaphy that they appreciated her remarks and her courage. One student brought a written message signed by a group of students expressing apology and regret at the behavior of the audience.

At the end of the ceremony, I commented that today is a day of joy and exuberance for the graduates, and all of us can join in congratulating them. I announced that on Monday morning, the University would post on its website the thoughtful and full text of the commencement address for those graduates who were denied the opportunity to hear it in its fullness and for others in the audience who wished to read it.

After the commencement, I read the full text. It is, in my judgment, not only thoughtful but exceedingly responsible in today's world. What was not responsible was the behavior of a clearly limited but noisy group in the audience. I would note that Arco Arena was more full than I have ever seen it for a commencement ceremony. The noisy and rude ones deprived the majority of those there and certainly our graduates from hearing a thoughtful address.

Universities exist not only to convey knowledge but to transmit and help individuals build values and a sense of social responsibility. The fact that our students behaved so well suggests that, at least in some measure, this university has been successful about developing a sense of social responsibility and respect. We have a broader mission with students yet to come and clearly in the greater community.

Text from Winter 2001 Commencement addresses


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