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Students protest commencement speaker

Kelly Meehan | Saturday, March 10, 2007

When Saint Mary’s senior Meaghan Herbst sat down to have lunch Monday, she nearly choked when she saw the “Alito to address SMC grads” headline in The Observer.

Her initial shock soon turned to anger as she shared her discontent with fellow students. Herbst, the president of College Democrats, quickly e-mailed the group’s members and soon found support from others ready to stand up against the administration’s commencement speaker selection of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito – a jurist who Herbst said has made many court rulings against women’s rights in the areas of family and medical leave, violence and sexual harassment.

“I was emotionally shocked and angered,” she said. “I couldn’t believe we would have someone so polarizing and misrepresenting of our mission at Saint Mary’s as our commencement speaker.”

Herbst, along with senior Allison Beyer and junior Giuliangela Rosato, spearheaded a mission to address their concerns with the College administration – an undertaking that gained attention Thursday in the student center atrium.

Armed with a formal letter addressed to College President Carol Ann Mooney, the three students took turns sitting at a small table in the student center to collect the signatures of those who shared their resentment of the administration’s selection.

Beyer said the goal of the letter is to get the College community talking about Alito, particularly how “a big name” does not automatically guarantee a speaker will correlate to the Saint Mary’s identity.

The three students said they realize Alito has already confirmed his speaking engagement at the College, and said their protest is not against the judge but rather toward the administration.

Community members were able to sign the letter from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday – an opportunity for those who are concerned with the selection to voice their opinion. Beyer said the letter will eventually be delivered to Mooney, who was unable to meet with the students before spring break.

Executive Assistant to the President Susan Dampeer said “several students have asked to meet with President Mooney, and they are going to schedule an appointment with her.”

Rosato said this meeting would be an opportunity for students to explain why they are upset and to learn why Alito was selected to address 2007 graduates.

“It will give Mooney the chance to hear directly from the students,” she said. “We hope to explain how many decisions Alito made [that] are not in line with Saint Mary’s mission statement.”

Herbst said she hopes the administration will take students more into consideration in the future to choose someone more representative of the entire student body and someone less polarizing than Alito.

“Having Alito come here sends out a message to the country,” she said. “It will allow people to associate him with us, and we need to make sure we are not sending the wrong message.”

Rosato said many community members have compared Alito to Notre Dame’s commencement speaker General Electric Chief Executive Officer Jeffery Immelt and deemed Alito a better speaker, without consideration of the deeper issues.

While Rosato, Beyer and Herbst collected signatures in the student center today, they also distributed a packet of information from the National Organization for Women’s Web site entitled “Samuel Alito’s Track Record Threatens Women’s Rights.”

Rosato said it was important that passers-by at least take a packet to review the information.

“It is important to tell students that [Alito] is more than a big name,” she said.

Dampeer said while Mooney is aware of the students who are not pleased with the selection, she will not release a statement about the issue.

“I believe that everyone has a right to their opinions,” Dampeer said. “I would hope that those who are disappointed with the selection of Alito will realize that there are many people who are thrilled with the selection.”

As students and administrators begin to accept each other’s opinions on the selection of Alito, Dampeer said she hopes “that while some may feel the need to protest, no one will be disrespectful and everyone will act with courtesy and civility.”

Associate Professor of Philosophy Patty Sayre said she believes the clash between campus views presents a great opportunity for dialogue.

“I believe that [Alito’s] track record is such that when compared to the sorts of values we hold at Saint Mary’s, it raises serious questions,” she said.

Although Sayre said she does not take a particular stance on the choice of Alito as the speaker, she said after sustained campus-wide dialogues she might be able to make a decision.

Herbst said she hopes to spark the campus debate through the letter-signing initiative and a chain e-mail that is circulating throughout the student body.

A copy of the “To Concerned Students” e-mail sent to The Observer states Alito is a “polarizing figure” who contradicts the College’s mission statement through his rulings “against women’s issues such as sexual harassment, violence against women and family/medical leave.”

Rosato said this discussion will continue after spring break, but she was uncertain if it will culminate with any form of demonstration during the commencement or senior week festivities.

“Some people mentioned a protest,” she said, “but that would take away the importance of the day. The focus should be on the graduates.”

Herbst, however, said she believes the administration’s decision was focused not on the 2007 graduates but rather on the College’s publicity.

“The problem we have is not with Alito himself,” she said. “The problem we have is with the backing of the administration’s decision.”