Vassar Commencement Speaker Withdraws Over Controversy
Vassar College’s 2022 commencement speaker has officially withdrawn from the ceremony after students expressed their outrage over his planned appearance.
The controversy started after the college announced that Jeh Charles Johnson would be speaking at graduation. Johnson, whose father was a lecturer at the college for 37 years, served as Secretary of Homeland Security under President Obama.
Students strongly opposed the choice due to Johnson's role in establishing detention centers at the Mexican border in response to an increase in immigrants seeking asylum. Vassar College's student-run newspaper, The Miscellany News, featured statements from students who found Johnson's scheduled appearance at graduation in contrast with the student body's ideals. Graduating senior, Ethan Rose summed up why so many students were upset.
I believe (Johnson’s) record in the public/private sectors and his material impact on the world and on marginalized groups…ought to disqualify him from coming to speak to the graduating class. It just seems to me that asking that a commencement speaker not have a record of overseeing the construction of inhumane detention facilities is a pretty low bar.
One week after being announced as commencement speaker, Johnson submitted his withdrawal, explaining that he didn't wish to stir up controversy.
I believe commencements should be joyous, tension-free events for graduates and their families. In my public life I managed many difficult and contentious issues. In my private life I do not seek to be the object of controversy or speak at a commencement where students will object to me.
Johnson went on to defend his tenure as Homeland Security Chief, citing a decrease in deportations and increases in young people signing up for DACA and serious offenders being deported.
The decision to have Johnson speak was made solely by Vassar president, Elizabeth Bradley. There is no committee or group that chooses the commencement speaker, that duty is left to the school's president. In response to student concerns, Bradley released the following statement.
While I continue to believe that engaging in discussion about topics about which we disagree is essential to learning, I recognize that Commencement is not always the right setting for those, sometimes difficult, conversations.
The Vassar commencement will take place on Sunday, May 22. A replacement speaker has not yet been named. Past speakers include Tom Hanks, Lisa Kudrow, Samuel L. Jackson and Stephen King.