Skiing Berkeley commencement speaker riles students

Controversy at UC-Berkeley is as routine as students cramming for finals. But at the campus that gave birth to the Free Speech Movement, the grumbling is louder than usual over Friday’s commencement speaker.

And it has nothing to do with affirmative action, the war in Afghanistan or the violence in the Middle East, it has to do with … skiing.

Jonny Moseley, an Olympic gold medalist skier and UCLA dropout, will address the graduating class of 2002. The choice has been widely criticized.

“Why Moseley” was scrawled Wednesday in chalk in front of the Alumni House. Senior Brian Chu, 21, who will graduate with a computer science degree Friday, said he is upset Moseley is speaking.

“Who is he to tell us that it’s great that we made it through college, when he never did,” said Chu. “They should have gotten somebody like Colin Powell.”

Others have been even less charitable in their reactions.

“Inviting Jonny Moseley to be the commencement speaker insults the intelligence of all the students at UC-Berkeley,” said student Tam Ma in a letter to the Daily Californian, the campus newspaper.

The editorial board of the student newspaper ripped the choice last week, in an editorial that can be sung to the tune of “American Pie”:

`Bye, bye, you seniors good-bye,”

Jonny said at commencement, a crazed look in his eye,

And though you may be thinking, “Who the hell is this guy?”

Just sit back, listen, and sigh . . .

Laurie Zamora, 20, said that she hadn’t heard a lot of complaints because she doesn’t know many seniors. But she is disappointed with the decision.

“I don’t really know what skiing has to do with academia,” said Zamora, a sophomore from Los Angeles. “What’s his big claim to fame, that he did a few flips?”

The selection of Moseley, who dropped out of college, is a stark departure for the academically renowned university. Last year, former Attorney General Janet Reno delivered the commencement address and then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright spoke in 2000.

But a commencement organizer defended the choice.

“We’re thrilled to have him and I think he’s going to do a great job,” said Jason Simon, a professional staff member hired by the Cal Alumni Association to advise students on the search for a speaker. “His message as an Olympian will really resonate with students. He’s been skiing since he was 4 years old, and has an outstanding message about dedication and setting goals.”

Moseley, 26, earned the first U.S. gold medal in freestyle moguls at the 1998 Winter Olympic Games in Nagano, Japan. He is best known for his trademark “Dinner Roll” trick in which he flies off the moguls jump, then rotates 720 degrees with his body parallel to the ground.

Moseley was returning from a trip to Paris and could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

After the 1998 games, the Tiburon, Calif., resident took a few years off to appear at ski exhibitions and the X Games, and he competed in this year’s Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. On campus, there have been rumors that top drawer politicians, including Vice President Dick Cheney and Mexican President Vicente Fox, declined to speak because of the perception that the Berkeley campus is “anti-American.”

But campus officials refused to confirm if Cheney and Fox had been asked to deliver the address. A spokesperson for Cheney declined to confirm if he had declined an invitation from UC-Berkeley.

“The Vice President gets several invitations to speak regularly, and unfortunately we can’t do all of them,” said Jennifer Millerwise, his press secretary. “He will be speaking at a college later this month, but because of Sept. 11 we are not publicizing his schedule in advance.”

Finding a speaker can be difficult. Famous public figures are in high demand, and often receive dozens of invitations. UC-Berkeley does not give out honorary degrees or pay honorariums, which can be a deterrent.

“There’s a misconception that 30 people line up and say that they want to speak at UC-Berkeley’s graduation,” Simon said. “The number one reason why people turn us down is because of scheduling conflicts … No one has ever said they won’t come to Berkeley because the campus is `un-American’.”

Politicians and individuals involved with the Sept. 11 attacks and its aftermath are in high demand at graduation ceremonies this year. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice will deliver Stanford’s Commencement speech in June.