For the second time in three days a student government organization at Michigan State University has passed a resolution opposing the pending commencement address by George Will, citing his offensive comments about campus sexual assault.
The Associated Students of Michigan State University, the school's undergraduate student government, held an emergency meeting Tuesday night and approved the resolution, 23-1, denouncing the decision to host Will as a commencement speaker at the December 13 graduation and to award him an honorary doctorate.
A copy of the resolution provided to Media Matters by the ASMSU states in part, “the choice of George Will has given many students the impression that MSU does not make sexual assault a priority” and concludes that “ASMSU condemns MSU's choice of George Will as a speaker at MSU's Fall commencement and calls for MSU to immediately rescind their invitation and find another speaker to address graduating seniors.”
The resolution urges the university to “also allocate funds in at least the same amount as Mr. Will's speaking engagement fee towards the hiring of more counselors for the Counseling Center to address the need for students seeking help with sexual assault and reaffirms commitment to sexual assault prevention and response.”
The resolution's passage came just hours after MSU's president, in the face of rising protests from the student body, issued a statement defending their decision to honor Will.
Colin Wiebrecht, a representative of the ASMSU general assembly, introduced the resolution.
“I thought it was important because there had been a growing number of students who were against having George Will and would put a lot more pressure on the administration,” he told Media Matters.
Kiran Samra, the ASMSU chief of staff, said the issue was important to bring to a vote.
“The role of the undergraduate student government is to echo the voice of our constituents,” she said via email. “It was clear through the numerous communications that this was an issue of importance to our fellow students.”
ASMSU's actions follow an earlier resolution from the Council of Graduate Students on Sunday that stated the governing body wanted to, “convey our objections to Dr. George Will serving as one of the commencement speakers and being a recipient of an honorary degree this semester.”
In June, Will authored a Washington Post syndicated column suggesting that attempts to curb campus assaults have made “victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges.”
That column has triggered widespread criticism, particularly on college campuses. Over the past two months, Will was uninvited from a speaking engagement at Scripps College and greeted by hundreds of protestors at Miami University.
Following criticism from students, including the condemnation of the Council of Graduate Students, MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon posted a statement Tuesday defending the choice of Will, which stated, in part, “Having George Will speak at commencement does not mean I or Michigan State University agree with or endorse the statements he made in his June 6 column or any particular column he has written. It does not mean the university wishes to cause survivors of sexual assault distress. And it does not mean we are backing away from our commitment to continuously improving our response to sexual assault.”
The ASMSU's Wiebrecht objected to President Simon's comments.
“The one thing that really irritated me was when she talked about discourse as something that happens at a university,” he said. “She was saying I understand it will be painful but it is something that college is about. It was very troubling to read that. It shows she is out of touch with a lot of students.”
Wiebrecht said the resolution is meant to pressure the administration to rethink the Will invitation: “I think it will pressure them a little bit more and shows that students have a student government that will listen to them.”
In a related move, dozens of students and staff have organized an alternative graduation event that will take place immediately after Will's address on Saturday.
“We decided we wanted to provide students with an alternative for those students who don't feel comfortable going to their own commencement,” said Cris Sullivan, a professor of community psychology and director of Michigan State University's Research Consortium on Gender Based Violence. “We encourage students to go to their commencement, we don't want this to hinder their excitement or the importance of this day.”
Sullivan said she and others organizing the alternative event disagree with the administration.
“I found it incredibly disappointing,” Sullivan said of the Will invitation. “There's a lot of research that shows when people in positions of authority minimize the experience of sexual assault survivors it can damage their healing. I was just very disheartened.”
Asked about President Simon's defense of Will, Sullivan added, “I was very happy to see that she did post something that talked about this finally and that she has reaffirmed MSU's commitment to taking sexual assault seriously.”
But, she stressed that Simon “keeps trying to make this a conversation about ideological differences with George Will, but it isn't about ideological differences. It is about MSU honoring someone who has repeatedly and publicly invalidated sexual assault on college campuses.”
Sullivan said the alternative commencement will take place at 12:30 p.m. on Saturday at MSU's Erickson Kiva, a location that seats several hundred people. Will is set to speak at the earlier commencement for several MSU colleges at another campus location at 10 a.m.
“It is more of a celebration of the students,” she explained about the alternative event. “From what I'm hearing some students will just come to this and will not go to their own commencement and some will go to both. There will be photographers there, there will be faculty there in their caps and gowns who will congratulate students. We are trying to bring in what students really like about commencement.”
Sullivan said she will speak, but did not know who else will as of Wednesday. She had no estimate yet of how many students will attend.
“We are just opening it to anyone who's interested,” she said. “I know we have more than 20 faculty who have enthusiastically agreed to participate. I have not heard any response from the administration.”