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Law School graduation speaker criticized by students for stances

BY HALEY GLATTHORN
Daily Staff Reporter
Published April 18, 2011

Correction appended: A previous version of this article misidentified U.S. Sen. Rob Portman's previous career experience.

For the second time this semester, the University’s selection of a commencement speaker has created a furor on campus.

Hundreds of Law School students have expressed their opposition to U.S. Sen. Rob Portman (R–Ohio) as the Law School’s graduation ceremony speaker on May 7. The students have voiced their opinions to the school’s administration through letters and meetings throughout the past week and have communicated their disappointment with the choice primarily because of Portman’s record of voting against LGBT rights.

Despite the students’ concerns, University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said Portman, a Law School alum, will still be speaking at the Senior Day ceremony.

Third-year Law student Sarah St. Vincent is among the students who have vocally opposed the selection of Portman. According to a press release sent out yesterday by St. Vincent, 298 Law students are voicing their dismay on the issue through a petition. This number includes about one-third of graduating Law students, the press release states.

“Many of us are opposed (to Portman speaking) because LGBT rights are something that we really value,” St. Vincent said in an interview. “For some people, that’s something that affects them very personally. For those of us who aren’t LGBT, it’s an issue of respect for our classmates and their rights as human beings.”

During his time in office, Portman has voted for legislation that would prevent same-sex marriages from being legally recognized.

St. Vincent said students have authored several letters informing administrators of their disapproval, including two letters to Law School Dean Evan Caminker — one from a group of third-year Law students and another from a group of first and second-year students. Students have also sent a letter to Portman requesting he withdraw as speaker, St. Vincent said.

Fitzgerald said Caminker is taking the students’ concerns seriously and has met with a number of them to better understand their complaints. However, Fitzgerald said Caminker is moving ahead with plans to have Portman deliver the Law School graduation address.

Caminker e-mailed members of the Law School community on April 14 concerning the issue and acknowledged the controversy the Senior Day speaker choice has caused.

"All the communication surrounding this issue has been thoughtful, and I respect our students’ conviction and outreach," he wrote. "I truly regret that this issue has caused members of our community distress in anticipation of what should be a celebratory day."

However, Caminker defended the Law School's decision to invite Portman to speak at the school's graduation ceremony.

"The Law School has a tradition of inviting commencement speakers with a range of backgrounds and accomplishments, including leaders in government, public service and private enterprise," he wrote. "We seek speakers who have achieved success and accomplishment in their professional careers, rather than speakers whose views are representative of all or a majority of the students at the Law School."

In his e-mail, Caminker also reaffirmed the school's support of the LGBT community and wrote that preventing Portman from speaking at the ceremony would oppose the University's goal of facilitating a discourse on campus that includes a variety of opinions.

"We are deeply invested in the principle of diversity where a wide spectrum of perspectives is included," Caminker wrote. "The Law School remains steadfast in its commitment to create a supportive environment for our LGBT community, and also to create an educational environment in which diverse viewpoints can be represented. Anything less would undermine the Law School’s core values."

St. Vincent said that at the ceremony, students against Portman may hold signs, wear buttons or stage a walk out. The University’s choice could also have lasting implications, as St. Vincent said some students may pledge to withhold future donations to the Law School.

“It shows our families that this is something that’s really important to many of us,” St. Vincent said. “It’s not an area we’re willing to compromise.”

Though St. Vincent said students don’t have another specific speaker in mind, they hope to convince the school to rescind the invitation to Portman.

Third-year Law student Kaitlin Jackson is also working to reverse Portman’s selection, but said she doesn’t think students’ efforts will be successful.

“I don’t think there’s any chance the school will change the speaker, and whether or not Portman will withdraw, it’s hard to say,” Jackson said.

For Jackson, the issue with Portman being the commencement speaker is the University’s implied support of the senator’s views. She said by presenting Portman as a “model” successful graduate, the University appears to support all aspects of his career.

“A lot of times in life you have to sit and listen to people you disagree with, and I think that’s something we understand, but it’s a pretty different thing on a day that’s supposed to be a celebration for you and your family,” Jackson said.

She added that the “organic movement” against Portman being the graduation speaker was initiated by individuals, not student groups, and involves a diverse group of students.

St. Vincent said students’ efforts will have worth even if Portman speaks at the graduation ceremony because their protests demonstrate the value students place on LGBT rights.

Portman was selected as the Law School graduation speaker in part because of his diverse range of professional experience, according to an April 11 University press release.

"With his broad base of experience, Senator Portman is sure to provide an inspirational commencement address for graduates who are curious about where their new Michigan Law degrees can take them,” Caminker wrote in the press release.

Prior to becoming a U.S. senator in January, Portman was a U.S. Representative, the U.S. trade representative and the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget under former President George W. Bush.

Valerie Jarrett, senior White House advisor and Law School alum, delivered the keynote address at the Law School Speaker Day last spring.

Earlier this semester, students conveyed their disappointment with the University’s selection of Republican Gov. Rick Snyder to deliver the keynote speech at Spring Commencement on April 30. Students protested on the Diag and outside University President Mary Sue Coleman’s office last month, started and signed a petition and spoke to the University’s Board of Regents about the choice during its meeting on March 17.

— Daily News Editor Devon Thorsby contributed to this report.