Commencement conundrum

College graduation is a sacred event. The Portland State University administration must keep the needs of students in mind when choosing this year’s commencement speaker. Rep. Peter DeFazio should not be chosen to speak at graduation.

The rate of students graduating from college has risen significantly for the last 50 years. It is commonplace to hold bachelor’s degrees, but that piece of paper is still a precious commodity. Many speculate the degree to be as highly regarded as high school diplomas were in the 1950s. This doesn’t mean that we should consider the graduation ceremony trite or ordinary. On the other hand, it also shouldn’t be controversial.

DeFazio is certainly going to bring protests to the ceremony. Many students are disappointed with the choice of the 4th District Democrat as a commencement speaker because of his yes vote on the infamous Sensenbrenner Bill. There are threats to boycott the ceremony because of his support for legislation that would make illegal immigration a felony. The choice is upsetting not only for students with immigrant families, but also for students with families who want to enjoy their commencement.

DeFazio’s past record on civil rights is more impressive. He protected Oregon’s Death with Dignity legislation and voted against the Patriot Act. However, the latest blunder of voting for the Sensenbrenner Bill shows his disregard for extensive civil rights legislation. He was one of only 36 House Democrats to approve the bill.

Another reason for the administration to pick another speaker is that of partisanship. This is an election year, and even though DeFazio isn’t up for re-election, his currently controversial voting record doesn’t remove the suspicion of bias or contentious speech.

Graduation is not the time to be making a stand. Many students will have family visiting from far away. Some will be the first in their families to receive a bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral degree. Staging protests against the speaker shows disrespect for the students graduating. Choosing a contentious speaker only perpetuates this behavior.

I graduated in the winter of 2003 from a small university. As a result, the speaker at my college graduation was one of the professors. It wasn’t glamorous, but it was uplifting and received glowing remarks from my family. I attended the school’s graduation in the spring, which wasn’t so positive. The speaker was a state senator from the area who was extremely conservative. It was offensive to me that the school would pick him as a speaker. What should have been a momentous occasion for my friends who were graduating became a politically charged event with unspoken conservative biases.

Portland is a progressive city with obvious liberal leanings. Our politicians reflect this. Although DeFazio isn’t the representative for Multnomah County, his political record shows preference for the progressive left. The yes vote for the Sensenbrenner Bill is one of only a few blemishes on an otherwise progressive record. However, it is a large blemish to many Oregon citizens.

Many of us know someone who is here illegally, whether they are family members, friends or associates. The illegal immigration debate will become part of Portland State University’s commencement ceremony. Although I still have a year left of school before graduating, I can imagine how difficult it would be to explain to my family why students were protesting the commencement. The commencement ceremony should be remembered for its graduates, not for the speaker’s reputation or voting record.

I empathize with the students who disagree with DeFazio’s stance on illegal immigration. I also empathize with the students who just want a calm and respectable graduation ceremony. The administration and leaders of Portland should keep this in mind when choosing the commencement speaker.