With every graduating class, both at Georgetown and at other elite universities, there is always talk of who will deliver the commencement address. This year, a leading health educator will share her years of wisdom, a globally recognized filmmaker will highlight the importance of environmental conservation and an innovative CEO will reflect on his experience in the health insurance industry.
While these speakers bring their own expertise and experiences, Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson, scheduled to speak to the graduates of the School of Foreign Service on May 21, has prompted protests from members of the student body, with members of UndocuHoyas delivering a letter to the SFS Dean’s office calling for Johnson’s invitation to be rescinded. Alumna Hemly Ordonez (SFS ’08) also began a petition on change.org calling for the invitation to be rescinded, with the page receiving 741 supporters as of Thursday at 5 p.m.
Both Ordonez and UndocuHoyas, as well many other members of the community, take issue with the work done by the Department of Homeland Security in deporting undocumented immigrants. They see the presentation of an honorary degree to Johnson and graduates receiving diplomas from the secretary as insulting. In her petition, Ordonez equate the invitation as “an insult to my family, to the myriad of Georgetown alumni from mixed-documented families, and to the undocumented students who are preparing to graduate this month.”
Though the secretary has received pushback and some negative response from community members, it must be ensured that his speech proceeds without further interference in order for Georgetown to maintain its position as a center for the free expression of ideas.
Johnson is not unaware of the concerns of members of the student body, and he has demonstrated his willingness to confront the nuances of students’ concerns through a meeting with six undocumented Georgetown students and interviews with student publications.
In a typical setting, students have the simple choice of not attending a speech if they disagree with the ideologies and beliefs of that speaker. Yet a commencement speech is mandatory for graduates and thus those who disagree with their commencement speaker may find it difficult to opt out of the address.
Even so, students are perfectly free and capable to voice their disagreements and should absolutely be encouraged to do so in order to uphold our community’s commitment to free expression and exchange of ideas. But to rescind the invitation would be a misstep and an unwelcome change from the direction this university took when it accepted a talk from Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards earlier in the semester.
What the outcry surrounding Johnson’s commencement speech should demonstrate is that student voices should be taken into consideration for commencement speakers in the future. Through focus groups, the administration can further learn of the needs and concerns students wish to address, while a future panel integrating both administrators and Georgetown University Student Administration members may prove helpful in securing speakers who will deliver powerful pieces of wisdom to graduates while acknowledging the present issues affecting our nation.
When it comes to Georgetown’s dedication to the free exchange of ideas, an interaction between the desires of the administration and the voices of students can only lead to progressive dialogue and fruitful exchange.