After he was chastised for his handling of the commencement controversy last year, Board Member Anthony Fellow now insists that students have had too much input in the selection of the school’s graduation speaker.
Last year, the school weathered a scandal when commencement speaker Dustin Lance Black was invited, disinvited and then re-invited to speak at last year’s ceremony. At last week’s board meeting, Fellow blamed too much student input for the incident, which made national headlines.
“We ran into problems last year because the students had too big of a voice and it was very problematic,” Fellow said. “I got the brunt of it and I love Mr. Black more than anybody, I am a fan of his. But I got the brunt of it in the press, that it was my fault.”
Student Trustee Marshall Lewis was quick to disagree and sided with the students.
“I don’t think the issue was that students had too big of a voice, I mean it is their commencement after all,” Lewis said.
“I’m from a university and the president never asked students who is going to be the commencement [speaker],” replied Fellow. “It is the president.”
To which Lewis countered, “With all due respect, this is not a university.”
“I know, but it should start acting like it sometimes,” said Fellow.
Board Member Linda Wah was supportive of letting the superintendent take the lead but also agreed that the students should have a say in the decision.
“We should pick someone who resonates with the students,” Wah said. “I walked out one year and I heard students felt very disenfranchised and disengaged and I do not think that’s what we want.”
Student Trustee Marshall Lewis acknowledged that the policy calls for the committee to announce a suggestion to the superintendent. The superintendent then makes a suggestion to the board that the board votes on based on the review.
“I think we’re getting ahead of ourselves,” Lewis said. “This is about students so all though we may love all these people and wish this upon them to speak for us but I think the student voice is what we should be listening to. It is their graduation.”
Board Member Ross Selvidge addressed his disapproval for not being able to solicit any possible suggestions to the committee and questioned whether board members should be considered part of the campus community. He then referred to procedure AP5950, which states that the committee shall solicit suggestions from all members of the campus community and recommend candidates to deliver the commencement speaker address.
According to Senior Vice-President Robert Bell, the policy states that the committee should consist of three students, a member of the classified staff, administration, and a faculty member who then do outreach to their respected constituent groups to solicit names of respected candidates. The policy also calls for the shared governance group to be involved; it does not speak to recommendations directly from board members.
“I am disappointed that I did not have an opportunity to propose somebody that I had talked with last year during all that folderol,” Selvidge said.
Board President Berlinda Brown stated that when trustees give their opinions, it “puts the superintendent in a precarious position” and wondered if the superintendent, with the support of students, should be the one to make the final decision.
“I know that when the trustees give their opinions it carries a lot of weight,” Brown said.
Board Member Jeannette Mann offered a suggestion of maybe revising the procedure to include input from board members.
“I think in the past the board members have been consulted so maybe you might want to look and see if the board members could make any suggestions they have at the beginning of the process and not at the end,” Mann said. “I think where we get into trouble is when at the very end, the board members have suggestions so maybe that could be revised or looked at.”
The Commencement Speaker Committee is now working to contact and prioritize the list of 11 speakers. They will discuss their revised list with the superintendent and present to the board their final suggestion at the next board meeting scheduled for Wednesday, March 4.