Planned Christie Speech Spurs Uproar at Rowan

Given the polarizing power of Chris Christie, it comes as no surprise that protests have greeted the announcement that the governor will deliver the commencement speech May 16 at Rowan University’s 2014 graduation ceremony.

The opposition that has played out over the last several weeks stems primarily from Rowan education majors and alumni, many of whom are not only enraged by the decision to make Christie the keynote speaker, but also the fact that the university will be awarding him an honorary degree (along with Senate president Stephen Sweeney and state Senator Donald Norcross).

In addition to lots of caustic chatter on various social media platforms, the most visible and organized protest has come from Rowan alumni Christina and Joseph Nappi, who launched an online petition in mid-April demanding the university revoke its invitation to Christie. On the website Change.org, the Nappis state: “Rowan is historically a teachers’ college. No governor in NJ history has been more adversarial to teachers and public education than Chris Christie. His policies have damaged public education and the teaching profession as a whole. He is not deserving of this honor from Rowan.”

Moreover, their petition reads: “We urge you not to celebrate Chris Christie with an honorary degree, or with the privilege of being the Keynote speaker.”

The petition to date has since garnered 2,500 signatures. It also has attracted dozens of comments.

“I signed this because I am a graduate of Rowan, and Rowan holds itself in a morally high standard as students and members of the community,” writes one commenter. “Christie has openly gone against obvious needed reforms in education, healthcare and environmental sustainability and he is absolutely NOT representative of what Rowan and its graduates live and believe—especially being that we have such a high respect for our education majors.”

The decision has also drawn action on Rowan’s campus. During its April 14 meeting, the university’s Student Government Association voted on a resolution to demote Christie from commencement speaker to honorary guest, adding that the Office of the President should “strongly consider a new speaker.” The resolution was defeated by a vote of 37 to 28, but opposition has continued to dominate the dialogue on campus.

As an adjunct journalism instructor at Rowan, I’ve had the opportunity to ask a few students what they think of the decision. They told me that several graduates are planning mild forms of protest, either standing up and turning their backs when Christie takes the podium or leaving the ceremony entirely. On the other hand, many of the students I spoke to said they are more concerned with the attention Christie’s appearance has taken away from the celebratory nature of the commencement.

In an April 16 editorial for the university newspaper The Whit, editor Christian Hetrick addressed this overarching concern.

“The graduation ceremony on May 16 should be about the students who have put in years of hard work and dedication to their studies,” wrote Hetrick. “However, [Rowan president Dr. Ali] Houshmand’s decision to make Christie the keynote speaker has had the opposite effect. Between an SGA senate proposal to remove the governor as speaker, a petition to do the same on change.org, and the dozens of tweets, comments and Facebook posts arguing for or against the decision, one thing is clear: this year’s graduation is no longer about the graduates.”

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