Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Commencement capades closer to home 

Haven't you ever wanted to tell your kid she or he is selfish? Haven't you always hoped for the day when your teen would grow up and start to show concern for others? If you do, you better hope they don't wake up to it during their valedictory speech.

Ben Kessler was chosen Tommie of the Year at the University of St. Thomas, and he decided to give .something other than milquetoast congratulations.
Ben Kessler, an academic All-America football player who plans to become a priest, chastised students for using birth control, criticized them for a recent food fight and upheld the St. Paul university's controversial policy against allowing unmarried faculty and staff members in romantic relationships to room together on school trips that involve students.

"Then he got into other failures of society, and one of my classmates next to me stood up and left," said Daphne Ho, a graduating senior whose family traveled from Hong Kong for the celebration.

..."He started out pretty well and then, out of nowhere, comes these bombshells about things he'd seen that irritated him," said Chris Kearney, a graduating senior from Hibbing, Minn.

"The heart of the speech was about making selfish decisions, so when I went up to get my diploma afterwards, I told him he made some good points about being selfish -- and he's the man that was selfish enough to ruin hundreds of people's graduations," Kearney said.

Several students were seen crying, while others hollered to get Kessler off the stage. Brandon Mileski, a 2002 St. Thomas graduate, was in the crowd to watch his girlfriend receive her diploma.

"Dozens of students literally started walking out when he brought up birth control issues and, at one point, I thought a riot would break out," Mileski said. "I give him credit because he kept on going when everyone started booing and heckling.

"At one point he was talking about the meaning of true happiness and someone stood up and screamed: 'I'll be happy when your speech in done!' "
Well, I've wanted to say that last line at a lot of graduations!

I'll give Chris Kearney credit for taking his message privately to Kessler, though I may disagree with Kessler. But to the booing of him -- like those boos at Boston College or the New School -- I say it is as much if not more disgraceful to disrupt graduation as anything Kessler said. He is voted an award for his four years of schooling, but only if he says the right things on stage.

Unsurprisingly, St. Thomas president Rev. Dennis Dease took time off from his unwavering Castrophilia to call Kessler's remarks "not appropriate" and to accept an apology from Kessler.

At the same time, the president said, it was also important "to treat one another with respect as we speak and as we listen, regardless of how controversial an issue may be."

You had four years to get your school to teach that, Reverend. You might want to review the curriculum.

UPDATE: Dease's statement is here, and the PioneerPress report includes this lovely sentiment.

Aus and other students were upset that St. Thomas officials didn't stop the speech.

"If someone were to start talking about their beliefs on gay rights, I guarantee you someone from the administration would have put an end to it right away," Aus said.

After Kessler's speech, Thomas Rochon, the university's chief academic officer, told the crowd it takes courage to express one's convictions. Aus and others saw it as Rochon validating the remarks.

I know Tom Rochon -- we have common Claremont Graduate University roots -- and I suspect what he meant was to protect academic free speech. Who knew it didn't carry from the classroom to the graduation stand?