Millersville U Commencement Speaker Controversy: It’s About Self-Respect

“An example I came up with: A guy stabs another guy and then
the victim is in the hospital. The guy who stabs him comes to the
victim’s bedside with the victim’s family, just to tell him everything
is going to be alright. That’s how I am feeling.”

Kyle D. Johnson
Millersville University Student
Class of 2013

[POST UPDATED 3/15/2013: Correction under “Free Speech Frame” heading]

Corbett Choice for MU Grad really squareA two year contract fight and several years of austerity apparently were not enough to persuade Millersville University administration that it should close out the year on a high note, celebrating the accomplishments of their students. Instead, the administration has thrown the university back into the political fires of Gov. Tom Corbett’s deep cuts in public education from Kindergarten through higher ed. Millersville University is part of the PA State System of Higher Education (PASSHE), which Corbett targeted for a 50% budget cut in 2011. The state legislature softened the blow by passing “only” an 18-20% cut in State funding to public higher education (see details in one of my previous posts, “Flat Funding? Not in the Reality-Based World”). These cuts led to the elimination of three men’s sports: indoor track and field, outdoor track and field, and cross country. The university also cut or left unfilled 124 faculty and staff positions as a result of the deep cuts. So, how did Millersville University administration decide to close out this academic year? By invited Gov. Tom Corbett – the architect of austerity in PA – to be the 2013 Commencement speaker.

In an interview on the Rick Smith Show on Tuesday (3/12), Kyle Johnson, a graduating senior at Millersville, said that when he first heard the announcement, he “thought it was a joke.” The choice of Corbett as the 2013 Commencement speaker was a “smack in the face,” according to Johnson – a phrase echoed by dozens of students posting stories of their outrage on a petition against Corbett speaking at graduation, a “No Corbett at Milllersville” Facebook page, and a “No Corbett at Millersville Graduation” tumblr page.

I am working on a story for my on-line media site, Raging Chicken Press, about Millersville Unversity adminstration’s decision to invite Gov. Corbett to be this year’s Commencement speaker. It appears, for example, that the university administration did not follow its own policies for choosing a commencement speaker, by-passing the governance structure that would have included students and faculty in the decision-making process. Millersville University’s spokesperson was happy to answer my questions until I began asking about the decision-making process after speaking to several members of the Millersville University community who urged me to do so. I should be posting that article early next week.

Student, alumni, and community outrage has been so loud that yesterday Gov. Corbett’s office found it necessary to respond and Millersville University public relations’ crew went into high gear. In what reads as a fairly coordinated effort, Gov. Corbett’s office and Millersville University public relations people are pushing hard to frame the controversy in terms of “free speech” and to argue that the Governor has been a supporter of PASSHE and public education. In a prepared statement, Janet Kelley, Corbett’s deputy director of communications, stated:

“The chairman of the Board of Governors for the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, along with leaders from the state-related universities, has spoken in support of Gov. Corbett’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year.”

Kelley’s statement seeks to build upon the carefully framed bio of Corbett posted on the Millersville University web page. Seeking to trumpet Corbett’s commitment to education, the bio states:

Investing the most state dollars for basic education in the history of Pennsylvania, Corbett has continued to put students first. His administration has been a champion for Pennsylvania’s youth by giving students in failing schools the opportunity to succeed by expanding the state’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit program and significantly improving Pennsylvania’s teacher evaluation system.

No mention is made of Corbett’s nearly $2 billion dollar cuts to public education or the deep cuts he made to PASSHE. It is also telling that Corbett’s spokespeople use the Chair of the PASSHE Board of Governors to support their case. As I wrote in a previous post, the Chair of the PASSHE Board of Governors, Guido Pichini, is not an uncontroversial figure himself. In the lead up to the 2010 mid-term elections, Pichini gave at least $10,000 to most influential right-wing think-tank, the Heritage Foundation. The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review has been investigating the $4.5 million dollar contracts Pichini’s company, Security Guards, Inc., holds with three PASSHE Universities, including Millersville, as a possible conflict of interest.

The Free Speech Frame

[POST UPDATED 3/15/2013 – Correction – In the section below, I reference a “well-argued post on Millersville’s official blog and published in the local Lancaster, PA newspapers.” I had the attribution backwards. Millersville University posted a Lancaster Intelligence Journal/Lancaster New Era editorial on its blog. The post is authored by the newspaper’s editorial board, not the Millersville University public relations staff. The university had pasted the editorial into its original post responding to the speaker controversy. Given that the editorial now appears first in the university’s official response, I think the argument that the university wants to frame the issue as one of free speech still holds. I have not altered my original post other than including this update].

For their part, the Millersville University public relations people are putting all their eggs in the “free speech” basket. In a well-argued post on Millersville’s official blog and published in local Lancaster, PA newspapers, the university administration links Gov. Corbett to Bill Ayers. Well, not exactly. The administration attempts to persuade readers to view Gov. Corbett speaking at Commencement like the appearance of Bill Ayers – a former leader of the radical-left organization, The Weathermen, in the 1970’s who’s past was resurrected during the 2008 presidential campaign – at Millersville University in 2009:

There is no question that Corbett’s policies are unpopular with students and some faculty members. Some have denounced the university for inviting the governor to speak.

But we seem to remember that four short years ago, alumni, donors and leaders in the Republican Party questioned Millersville’s invitation to former-radical-turned-professor William Ayers.

Ayers’ invitation forced the university to beef up security for the event. But the university was right to bring him to campus to discuss urban education.

The same holds for Millersville’s decision to invite Corbett. Who better to discuss higher education costs than the man who crafted the budget and who has contended that colleges and universities need to hold the line on tuition and extraneous fees?

Millersville’s free speech frame is compelling. However, it is also a bit disingenuous. If we were talking about Gov. Corbett’s appearance on campus to talk about higher education funding or his budget or how cool his new tax-payer funded fleet of SUVs are during the normal academic year, their argument would be spot-on. If that were the case, I would find myself agreeing with the right-wing, libertarian group, Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, when they praised Millersville’s reponse to Ayer’s appearance:

…something different and good is happening at Millersville. Robyn Meadows features the story in yesterday’s Lancaster New Era (Lancaster, PA). Meadows reports a public statement by Millersville University President Francine McNairy: “While I personally reject any form of violence, and strongly disagree with Dr. Ayers’ past actions and statements, I adamantly support the right of the committee to invite Professor Ayers…. [At Millersville,] inquiry is encouraged, ideas are expressed openly, and the dignity and rights of all individuals are respected and protected. It is within that context that this lecture will occur.”

The backlash against Ayers’ visit is itself a healthy exercise of American liberty. Protesters are, of course, free to demand the disinvitation of Ayers or to advocate for or against him and what he stands for. But to disinvite him would be a travesty of justice in violation of the best principles of freedom of speech. As Millersville spokeswoman Janet Kacskos wrote to Meadows, to cave into the pressure against Ayers “would be to undermine the educational princip[le]s and values that our University is based on — a liberal arts University where all opinions and ideas can be examined, questioned and discussed.” Even better, Kacskos also has frequently pointed out the support for freedom of speech that has come in from those who are against the disinvitation. One writer “believes in free press and free speech, and he is worried that we’ll be intimidated into silence.” Another, a Millersville graduate, honored the school as “a marketplace for all ideas and people of all stripes, a place where free speech is encouraged.”

Frankly, if I were sitting in the Millersville University PR office, this is probably the card I would play too. I would want to turn the decision to invite Gov. Corbett to give the Commencement address into an issue of academic freedom and free speech. This way the university is positioned as standing on principle and they get to sound like the defenders of free speech. Not many people are against free speech. But if this were purely an issue of free speech, you might expect the University to encourage protests as well instead of the subtle message in its original post about the controversy, “It is important to note that Millersville will not incur any additional expense related to dignitary protection while the Governor is on campus.  The State Police handle his security and do not charge the University for that coverage.”

If the university is allowed to frame this issue as an issue of free speech, then I think opponents of Corbett as the 2013 Commencement speaker will lose this battle. But, frankly, I don’t think this is an issue purely about free speech.

On Governance, Judgement, and Self-Respect

Millersville students and alumni have been especially good about focusing much of their ire on the university administration’s decision and not as much on the right of Gov. Corbett to speak on campus. They have critically questioned the university’s judgement of inviting the person who threw their own educational careers into a tailspin to speak as an honored guest on the day they are supposed to be celebrating their accomplishments. That seems to be where the outrage is coming from more than anything else – and that’s the point Kyle Johnson was making in his interview on the Rick Smith Show (you really should listen to his entire interview, students like him lift my heart and give me hope). The collective voices of students, alumni, parents, and faculty seem to demanding an answer to one pointed question: “What the hell were you thinking?” They are questioning the judgment of the university administration. While spokespeople for the administration say “It is not unusual for both private and public universities to invite officials elected to statewide political office to speak at commencement,” what the growing opposition wants to know is why THIS PARTICULAR public official AT THIS PARTICULAR TIME given THIS PARTICULAR CONTEXT? In effect students and alumni are asking the very questions that many of us try to teach them to ask in our classrooms.

Then there is the more mundane area of university governance. Millersville University has specific policies governing the choosing of a commencement speaker. These policies are publicly available on Millersville’s web page. As I mentioned above, I’ve had several people suggest to me that the university may have not followed its policies in which case the decision to invite Corbett to speak at Commencement may have been limited to a few top-level administrators. Jerry Eckert, Vice President for Advancement at Millersville University, who is the convener or chair of the Commencement Speaker Committee according to the committee by-laws and university policy, also served on Gov. Corbett’s Commission of Higher Education leading many people to suggest that he may be the one who made the call to invite Corbett. Such suggestions remain speculation at this point. I have several emails in to Janet Kacskos, Director of Communications at Millersville University, and to Jerry Eckert himself inquiring into the university’s decision-making process.  I am still waiting for replies as of this writing. If it turns out that the administration did not follow its own policies, it raises important questions about the purpose of such policies and if they can be abandon by the administration whenever they feel they are inconvenient.

Finally, there is the issue of self-respect. Millersville University’s first official response to the Commencement speaker controversy stated the following:

While Governor Corbett is on campus, we plan to showcase Millersville as an example of high quality education.  Graduation is the perfect place to demonstrate the strengths of the University through our outstanding students, faculty, staff and alums and to illustrate why Millersville is a good investment by the state.

The logic here seems to be that if they just show the governor how good of a job they are doing, then he will realize the errors of his ways and will suddenly become a supporter of PASSHE and public higher education funding. I have to say, this is the kind of logic that gives me a pit in my stomach and is similar to the kind of problem I pointed to in my most recent post on this blog. Governor Corbett is not suffering from a lack of knowledge, he is suffering from an ideological blindness that is as ruthless as it is single-minded. In his book, Don’t Think of an Elephant, George Lakoff argues that liberals and progressives (and I would add academics) tend to suffer from myths that do not serve us in the least. The most prominent one stems from the Enlightenment:

The truth will set us free. It we just tell people the facts, since people are basically rational beings, they’ll all reach the right conclusions (17).

Lakoff argues that this is problematic because, as they have learned in cognitive science ages ago, people don’t actually think like that. People think in frames – in concepts and worldviews connected to their language. The problem is that liberals, progressives, and academics generally believe that other people share their frame. But showing Corbett how great Millersville University is will not by itself change his mind. In fact, he is more likely to have his own frame confirmed by his visit. He will be shown how great everything is and he will probably say to himself, “see, my cuts are working – people are working more effectively and efficiently will little impact on the quality of education.”

Self RespectFrom the ideological frame that Gov. Corbett shares, academics and higher education administrators hoping to gain a few more crumbs by celebrating his accomplishments and honoring him at Commencement must look like that 47% that Mitt Romney referred to during his campaign – all those people who just want handouts.

Those of us who believe in public education from Kindergarten right through higher ed cannot continue to beg at the feet of those who are slashing funding to our institutions. One of the memes posted on the No Corbett at Millersville Facebook page got it exactly right: This is not about politics, it’s about self-respect. If someone tries to hurt you, you don’t invite them into your house as an honored guest.

In the end, students, alumni, faculty, parents, and community members are not coming out in opposition of Gov. Corbett speaking at Millersville University’s Commencement ceremonies to shut down Corbett’s right to speak. They are doing it out of self-respect – for themselves and for the university community that they love.

5 thoughts on “Millersville U Commencement Speaker Controversy: It’s About Self-Respect

  1. Reblogged this on APSCUF-KU xchange and commented:
    Just posted this today on AAUP Academe Blog. It deals with Millersville University administration’s decision to have Gov. Tom Corbett speak at their 2013 Commencement ceremonies and the growing opposition by students, alumni, faculty, parents, and community members.

  2. As a graduating senior at Millersville University, I have been discussing the selection of Gov. Corbett as our commencement speaker with friends and fellow students. I believe that you’ve hit the proverbial nail on the head.

    The idea that anyone is trying to curtail Gov. Corbett’s “right to free speech” seems a little absurd to me. I can understand why the university would attempt to frame it in this way, but free speech is not the issue at all. My issue, as well as every other student with whom I have spoken, is the fact that university officials have invited that same person who recently cut our funding to speak at our graduation ceremony.

    In what world does this make sense? Inviting Gov. Corbett to speak is the opposite of expressing our disapproval of his policies. As you said, he will come to his own conclusions if/when he comes to speak at Millersville’s commencement. There’s no way to force our perspectives on another person; Gov. Corbett will take away what he will from the experience. The way to express our disapproval for his policies is to invite someone else to come speak. Instead of “begging at the feet of those who slash public education,” as you so aptly put it, we should honor someone who has been an activist in improving the education system.

    Thank you for this post.

    • Lauren,

      Thank you for your comments. At Kutztown University, we just found out that the university administration is claiming to have an $8.2 million “budget shortfall.” The last time we saw a number like that Kutztown lost about 10 faculty members, several staff, the Theater program, the Nursing Program, the Advising Center, the Early Learning Center, and several programs designed to help support retention of first-generation students from low-income families. From some initial conversations I’ve had with some faculty at other PASSHE universities, Kutztown is not alone.

      These cuts continue to impact our universities and the very core of public higher education. I can’t tell you how good it feels and important it is to hear the voices of students like you saying “Enough!” So many people decided to just put their heads down, work harder, grin and bear it. At some point we all have to put a stop to this.

      Thanks again.

      Kevin Mahoney

  3. This freedom speech argument rings pretty hollow. The bottom line is that the administration has invited a governor who has taken a slash and burn approach to higher education. It is like the Millersville administration has been on vacation while the state system has been under siege from these right-wing ideologues. This is like inviting George Bush to a discussion of WMDs. Higher education is clearly something Gov. Corbett knows nothing about.

  4. As a college that educates large number of future educators, it seems ridiculous that MU administration would invite a politician who has blatantly show his disinterest in education. Does he have a right to speak and say anything he wants? Sure. Should Millersville have picked him? Hell no.

    As a Drexel alumna who works in higher education I am appalled by this decision.

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