Each year, the University Law School has its own graduation ceremony on Senior Day, which takes place the week following the University-wide commencement. Senior Day is a much more intimate and personal event than the University’s ceremony — understandable because the graduating law school class is much smaller, and therefore everyone knows pretty much everyone else.
The Law School announced the selection of this year’s Senior Day speaker on Monday: It will be Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), an alumnus of the law school. Before being elected a senator, Portman served in the House of Representatives and in a couple different positions in the George W. Bush administration.
The students who are aware of Portman’s selection are largely disappointed — highlighting his dubious positions on civil rights issues most salient to the new generation of lawyers being minted on Senior Day. For example, the website On The Issues notes that Portman opposes affirmative action, voted to ban adoptions by gay people, opposes gays serving in the military and has even gone so far as to support a constitutional amendment barring gay marriage — a position considered somewhat extreme even within the Republican Party.
Some will say it’s sad that the mere fact that Portman is a Republican makes him a controversial and unpopular selection. Last year’s Senior Day speaker was Valerie Jarrett, advisor to President Barack Obama. And while she was also a politicized selection, the majority of students found her perfectly palatable. But Portman is not coming to the law school to speak on gay rights. So should it matter what his political positions are? Is the fact that he is a successful alumnus of our Law School and a person who can certainly impart some words of wisdom on us lawyers-to-be enough to overlook the rest?
Actually, the problem is deeper than that, and tied mostly to Portman’s views on civil rights for gay people. Our graduating class is among the first of a generation that views equality based on sexual orientation as something more than an academic question on which people can agree to disagree. Rather, we have been raised in a slightly more enlightened world, and count amongst our friends and colleagues many gay people who continue to face discrimination that is abhorrent to the spirit of constitutional protections afforded to all people.
There was a time when such discrimination was common, and acceptable. That time has passed: Equal rights in terms of sexual orientation have become the most salient social issue for our generation. While plenty of diversity of opinion remains in our class and generation, the vast majority of us who find Portman’s views on civil rights to be outright despicable cannot be expected to applaud him as an intellectually and professionally viable selection.
Senior Day is different from most platforms a public university and law school may provide. While I’d generally commend the presentation of speakers with diverse opinions, Senior Day is not the time or place to present a man whose position on perhaps the most important social issue of our time is so personally offensive and egregious to the vast majority of the graduating class.
We law students are adults, and the vast majority of us are responsible, open-minded adults. We should and do know how to disagree about important things without being belligerent. Even if we strongly disagree with his political stances, we should be able to listen to Portman, politely clap and move on. We should be able to do this, but we should not have to — not on our Senior Day.
Senior Day is not supposed to be about politics. I have always been a strong believer that there is a time and place for political debate and disagreement, but by presenting Portman as speaker, the Law School has made Senior Day the appropriate time and place. I’d rather it wasn’t this way. But it is equally crucial that we Law School students, who owe so much intellectual growth to our years at this amazing law school, exercise the rights and ideals that we have spent our lives learning about.
Failing to speak our objection in light of the Law School’s decision to give a platform to a man who advocates positions that are outright discriminatory toward many of our friends and colleagues is simply unbecoming: We who follow as proud Michigan Law alumni in the spirit and footsteps of giants of social justice like Clarence Darrow, Frank Murphy and Branch Rickey cannot make such a glaring omission.
Imran Syed is a University Law School student.