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2011-03-17

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In president's office, Diag, students protest Snyder

Alden Reiss/Daily
Students gathered on the Diag on Wednesday, March 16 to protest the decision for Republican Gov. Rick Snyder to be this year's Spring Commencement speaker. The decision awaits approval from the Board of Regents, which will vote on the matter at its Thursday, March 17 meeting in Detroit. Buy this photo

By Joseph Lichterman, Daily News Editor
Published March 16, 2011

Chants of “Rick is wrong” reverberated throughout the Fleming Administration Building yesterday afternoon as about 30 people filed into University President Mary Sue Coleman’s office.

The student protesters were expressing their dissent with the University’s decision to have Republican Gov. Rick Snyder deliver the Spring Commencement address next month.

Organized by LSA senior Zach Goldsmith, the rally started on the Diag, growing to a crowd of about 100, with some protesters subsequently moving to Fleming. Goldsmith said he hoped the protest would send a message to the University’s Board of Regents and University administrators that students do not support the University's choice to have the governor deliver the graduation address.

The regents are expected to approve Snyder as the commencement speaker at their meeting in Detroit today.

“We showed today what democracy is,” Goldsmith said in an interview outside Fleming. “We walked into our administrative building, walked into see our president, Mary Sue Coleman. Nobody asked us to leave. It was perfectly fine, perfectly legal. We assembled on the Diag to tell everyone we don’t want Rick Snyder.”

Coleman, however, was nowhere to be found.

Before arriving at Fleming, demonstrators held signs that read “Reconsider Snyder” and “Not in our house” on the steps of the Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library.

The event’s speakers included Goldsmith and LSA senior Rick Durance, who created an online petition against the choice of Snyder. The petition has garnered more than 4,239 signatures as of 8 p.m.

Durance said in an interview that he started the petition because he wants the University to stop inviting politicians to speak at commencement ceremonies.

“It’s clear that having political speakers, whether it’s (President Barack) Obama or Rick Snyder, is dividing our graduating class,” Durance said. “This is the time where we should be University of Michigan students first — not Republicans, not Democrats, not affiliated with any of our political parties, but University of Michigan students. I don’t think that Governor Snyder is facilitating that.”

He added that he would have protested Obama’s commencement speech last spring if the president proposed cuts to education like Snyder has.

Michigan’s public universities face a 15-percent funding reduction from the state if Snyder’s 2012 fiscal year budget proposal is carried through. Such a decrease would mean $47.5 million less for the University, which received $316 million from the state for the 2011 fiscal year. Snyder’s budget also includes a provision that would raise funding cuts to 20 percent if state colleges increase in-state students’ tuition by more than 7.1 percent.

Durance said by inviting Snyder, the University is supporting his policies “by de facto.”

LSA senior Michael Caruso, who participated in the rally yesterday, said he was protesting because Snyder’s proposal to cut funding for higher education would undoubtedly raise tuition and put a financial strain on students.

“I’m working 60 hours per week trying to pay my tuition to attend this university, and it’s ridiculous that Mary Sue Coleman would think that it would be the right thing to bring in a man (to) speak who’s trying to bump my tuition up and make me work harder when I’m trying to work my ass off in class alone,” Caruso said. “It’s absurd to me that she would think that’s the right thing to do.”

University spokeswoman Kelly Cunningham declined to comment on the protests, but wrote in an e-mail that the University traditionally invites first-term governors to be the Spring Commencement speaker.

“The choice of commencement speaker is very important to the graduating class, their family and friends attending the ceremony, and we work to find someone who will inspire others through the commencement address and by virtue of his or her distinguished accomplishments,” Cunningham wrote. “We are very pleased that Governor Snyder, a three-time alum of the University before age 23, was able to accept the invitation in his first term."

Durance said he plans to attend the regents meeting today to present the Board with the petition. He said he anticipates that “several dozen” students will be joining him.

Goldsmith said he will also go to the meeting, adding that he plans to protest at the commencement ceremony on April 30.

“(University administrators) want a peaceful and orderly commencement, and if Rick Snyder is the commencement speaker, it will be none of those things,” Goldsmith said. “It is not going to be peaceful nor is it going to be orderly if he is the commencement speaker. It’s going to be ugly, and it’s not going to be good.”

LSA senior Michelle Shirk joined the Diag protest, but said she doesn’t want any protests at the actual commencement ceremony.

“I’ve heard about silent protests happening during graduation, where during his speech, people want to stand up and turn around. I don’t support that,” Shirk said. “I don’t want my graduation to turn into a political event. It’s not about that. It should be about me, and my graduation and my graduating class.”

Though a majority of people at the protest yesterday opposed Snyder, there were a handful of counter protesters who support the governor.

Engineering senior Nick Clay, who said he is a Republican, expressed disappointment that there was such outcry against Snyder.

“We think that at a university like Michigan, a public university, there should be a platform where we can accept a lot of diverse views — that’s what Obama said last year,” Clay said. “ … (There’s) a lot of uncivil rhetoric. Let’s just tone it down, and let’s just have a nice graduation.”