Graduation speaker pressured, bows out
San Francisco Chronicle
June 9, 2005

Some CSU students threatened boycott over his views 

- Tanya Schevitz, Chronicle Staff Writer
Writer Richard Rodriguez, invited to speak at the California State University East Bay commencement in Hayward on Saturday, has decided to withdraw from the program after some graduating students threatened to boycott the event.

 Rodriguez, author of the acclaimed memoir "Hunger of Memory," drew criticism from some students for his views against bilingual education and affirmative action.

 "I'm a bilingual educator," said student Leah Perez, 32, who is graduating with a master's degree in urban teacher leadership and protested Rodriguez's presence at the graduation. "He believes in assimilation and rejection of one's cultural identity, and we don't feel that is what we stand for in our program, and we don't want him representing us."

 Views such as Rodriguez's go against the mission of the university, she said, noting that CSU East Bay has an education curriculum that produces bilingual teachers and emphasizes social justice.

 Campus spokesman Kim Huggett said Rodriguez was slated to receive an honorary doctorate degree and then speak briefly. But those plans were scuttled by Rodriguez after campus President Norma Rees received several e- mails in the past week threatening a protest boycott. It was unclear Wednesday how many students had threatened to boycott the ceremony.

 Rees spoke with Rodriguez about the situation, and on Tuesday evening he decided it would be in the best interest of the university if he bowed out of the ceremony entirely, Huggett said. Rees will give the keynote address at the ceremony.

 "It is a sad situation. You hear about this at other universities," Huggett said. "We are a university that has always prided itself on the expression of free ideas. The sad part is people doing this based on a book they haven't read."

 The book was chosen last year as summer reading for freshmen, who then discussed it online. Rodriguez was also the speaker during a campus orientation for new freshmen and their parents last fall.

 In an e-mail sent Tuesday to a student who was critical about Rodriguez's appearance at the graduation, Rees wrote that she had heard no complaints or concerns about that earlier event.

 "On the contrary, it was an enormous success. I had not heard that there were differences among the faculty and students regarding Mr. Rodriguez's writings and statements until a few days ago," Rees wrote.

 Rees said she hoped to hold a forum in the fall to "share opinions and offer suggestions about this and related matters."

 "It will be a learning experience for all of us, including me," she wrote.

 Huggett invited anyone who wanted a free copy of Rodriguez's book to pick one up at the General Education Program Office in Room LM55 in Warren Hall on the Hayward campus.

 Even though Rodriguez will no longer appear at the main commencement, the protesting students are going ahead with an alternative graduation ceremony on Saturday with a different speaker.

 The main commencement for the university's 5,000 graduates will be at 9 a. m. in Pioneer Stadium. The alternative ceremony, expected to be attended by at least the 28 graduates of the urban teacher leadership master's program, will be held at 8:30 a.m. on the lawn of Meiklejohn Hall. The speaker will be Edmundo Norte, a lecturer in the program and a supporter of bilingual education.

 Sarah Gonzales, a professor in the Department of Educational Leadership, said it was unfair to give Rodriguez a platform and captive audience for his views.

 "We need to teach our students to be able to listen to diverse opinions, but they also need to be able to respond," said Gonzales, who is also a school board member in Hayward. "As a commencement speaker, he gets free air time."

 Rodriguez could not be reached by phone and did not respond to an e-mail for comment.

 E-mail Tanya Schevitz at