Commencement ritual: caps, gowns, and hisses

When Boston University President Jon Westling recently announced that this year's commencement would focus substantially on the Sept. 11 tragedy, you'd think it would have been well received.

After all, BU lost 28 alumni on that day of infamy – more than most colleges. Within hours of his announcement, however, some students began circulating a petition on the Internet, worried that a day of celebration would become a day of mourning.

Even more of an affront to the president, another online petition complained about the designated speaker – Westling himself. BU senior Erika Storella wrote that, while Dr. Westling is an accomplished speaker and a good president, students have already heard him "many times before."

If it's graduation time, it must be time for the graduation protest. Indeed, grousing about commencement speakers has become almost as ubiquitous as the cap and gown – themselves the subject of many a campus pique.

Yet this year's moral outrage is complicated by the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. Colleges, like the nation itself, are still struggling to find that balance between the somber and the celebratory, between looking forward and glancing back.

"While it is important to remember all those who suffered, we feel that the commencement is not an appropriate setting," wrote Johanna Brewer, a BU computer science major, in her online petition.

Overall, speakers this year are being hammered for perceived imperfections that range from being too familiar, too mournful, not cerebral enough, too tough, and even too hip.

To be sure, many campuses are welcoming paying homage to those lost on Sept. 11 and the heroes who emerged in the aftermath. Police and firefighters from New York are popular speakers. So, too, is former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who has received more than two dozen invitations.

He has accepted two: at Syracuse University and Georgetown University. But even at Syracuse, the man who was Time magazine's Man of the Year and perhaps the single most visible leader-statesman after Sept. 11 has his detractors. Fliers strewn across campus last month accused him of ignoring police brutality in the Amadou Diallo and other cases. Unbowed by the terrorist attacks, Mr. Giuliani is also apparently undeterred by the fliers and is still on the roster to speak.

"There always is going to be someone who is unhappy," says Sara Nadelman, a senior sociology major who served on the selection committee, explaining the choice to the student newspaper, the Daily Orange.

Elsewhere, the protests have been more straightforwardly political. First Lady Laura Bush declined to speak at this year's University of California at Los Angeles commencement for the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies.

The announcement in February came after fliers went up around campus and a group of students met with a dean to protest her selection. Some said her qualifications as a former teacher, librarian, and education advocate weren't enough. "She was selected for her political celebrity," Tara Watford, a doctoral student in education told the Daily Bruin. "The commencement speaker should speak to us based on achievements in the field."

Yet conservatives around the country rallied to the first lady's defense – including in angry e-mails to Ms. Watford. Citing earlier commitments, Mrs. Bush decided not to speak at UCLA and several other colleges.

Yet accomplishments of a different kind often aren't enough to satisfy students either. Even a 1998 Olympic gold medal didn't wow some students at the University of California at Berkeley, a notably cerebral institution. Fliers there are questioning the selection of this year's commencement speaker - mogul skier Jonny Moseley, who at the 2002 free-style competition in Salt Lake City gave new meaning to the term "dinner roll." Unimpressed, campus petitions wonder aloud: "Why Jonny Moseley?"

Apparently Mr. Moseley's lack of education credentials are at least partly to blame for his reception. He doesn't have a college degree and, in fact, dropped out of UCLA in 1998.

"I'm not going to be too motivated by somebody who never graduated telling me something," Jamaal Aris, a senior told the San Francisco Chronicle. "I don't know what Moseley adds to the academic world."

All the hoopla seems not to have bothered Moseley, though, who says he's happy to be speaking to the graduates about his experiences. "I'm stoked to be able to talk to the Cal students," he said.

At Boston University, the murmurings from disgruntled students probably won't end any time soon. In her online protest of Westling as speaker, Storella has gathered more than 2,500 signatures. At least 980 students have signed onto Brewer's online missive about the focus on 9/11.

BU officials are clearly irked. A school spokesman says the commencement ceremony will not be a "memorial service" – even though part of it will deal with the tragedy. He also calls the on-line petition "an electronic bandwagon" not as meaningful as one involving shoe leather and clipboards.

"I'm not at all impressed by numbers and speed," says the spokesman, Kevin Carleton. "Every student is online and has e-mail. All you have to do is forward it to everyone on their mailing list, and it has a geometric progression."

Ms. Storella disagrees. she says. "Everything we do here at BU is online: We pay bills and register for classes. I don't see why putting it online makes it invalid."

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