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Students debate university’s choice for commencement speaker

By Rotem Ben-Shachar

April 1, 2009 10:15 pm

Students’ mixed reactions to the announcement of James Franco as the 2009 commencement ceremony keynote speaker has led to scrutiny of the speaker selection process.

This year was the first year a formal committee was made to find a keynote speaker.

It was formed after former President Bill Clinton cancelled speaking at commencement last year because of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees workers’ strike.

Clinton’s cancellation spurred former Undergraduate Students Associatin Council President Gabe Rose and Cultural Affairs Commissioner Bernice Shaw to work with deans to find a replacement speaker.

They were deciding between Kal Penn and Arianna Huffington, and chose Huffington. But two hours before the ceremony, Huffington cancelled because she did not want to cross the picket line, Shaw said. Rose then had two hours to prepare a speech.

Julie Sina, chief of staff for the UCLA College, said that students’ dissapointment with Clinton’s cancellation proved how important commencement is to students.

In June 2008, a committee made up of Sina, Shaw as the student representative, deans including Tim Stowell from humanities, faculty members and representatives from the undergraduate education division, began meeting to discuss possible speakers.

In previous years, deans worked together to choose the speaker but had no formal committee.

“We looked for someone who had a connection to UCLA and who has had made some sort of an impact,” Sina said. “We also wanted diversity. Every year we want to pick someone with a different perspective.”

In 2008, Sina said many students wanted a recent graduate to speak at commencement.

The committee picked Franco because he has a strong affiliation to UCLA and graduated even though it took him over 10 years.

“He is an example of how important it is to follow through on your education,” Sina said.

The actor, who was in the popular films “Pineapple Express” and “Milk,” graduated from UCLA in 2008 with a degree in English. He is currently taking graduate classes at both New York University and Columbia University.

Erin Moore, a fourth-year English student, said she would rather the commencement speaker have more life experience than Franco.

“The speaker should reflect the hard work we have put in over four years,” she said. “There are many students who are just as impressive as Franco. We need more from a guest speaker.”

UC Merced is scheduled to have Michelle Obama as keynote speaker for its first full graduating class.

But Shaw said someone who has a direct connection to UCLA, like Franco, will be more meaningful.

“I understand why people are excited about Michelle Obama, but she has no connection to UC Merced, and I think having a connection is very important,” she said.

Moore recently created a Facebook group to protest Franco’s selection. Her group, UCLA Students against James Franco as Commencement Speaker, currently has 578 members.

“I have nothing against him as a student ““ he’s very intelligent and talented ““ but he hasn’t done anything significant,” Moore said. “He might be a great commencement speaker later on, but it seems a little premature to have him as a speaker now.”

In response to Moore’s group, Students Against UCLA Students Against James Franco as Commencement Speaker was created. Natalie Hamingson, a fourth-year communication studies student, is one of the 115 members currently in the group.

Hamingson said that since Franco is a recent graduate, he will have more relevant advice about the job market than someone who graduated from college 20 years ago.

She said she is also interested in hearing him discuss his recent book deal.

“The book deal is such a great accomplishment. I can’t wait to hear his perspective as a writer,” she said.

Shaw said she hopes that during commencement, students will realize Franco is a good choice for speaker because he has had many similar experiences to graduating seniors.

“His speech will have relevance to students at UCLA because he has eaten at the same cafeterias, walked the same halls. He knows what people are going through,” she said.

Sina said that next year she wants to include more students in the committee and increase transparency of the selection process.

“The selection is a work in progress,” Sina said. “We want as much student feedback as possible.”

Additional reporting by Srbui Karapetian, Bruin contributor.

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Rotem Ben-Shachar
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