Four Portland State University students met with four associate editors of the Oregonian Wednesday afternoon May 29 to discuss their contrasting opinions surrounding PSU’s choice of Miss America, Katie Harman, as commencement speaker at this year’s graduation. The editorial written by staff of the Oregonian was the center of the debate.
PSU students opposed to Miss America as commencement speaker were represented by Lew Church of the Progressive Student Union, Satomi Suzuki, Trevor Bryant and Annie Stewart.
Bob Caldwell, Oregonian editorial page editor, and associate editors David Reinhard, Doug Bates and Susan Nielsen were present to defend their recently published opinions.
In print the Oregonian has conveyed the sentiment Miss America was an admirable speaker choice and if PSU students were put in charge of choosing their own commencement speaker they would have picked a speaker like Adam Sandler or Kermit the Frog, as has occurred at other universities.
Church argues that Miss America is more like Adam Sandler or Kermit the Frog than some of his suggestions, including Erin Brokovich or Danny Glover.
The main question at issue was what a commencement speaker should represent and what Miss America represents. The Oregonian staff argued Katie Harman represents a local young woman who has achieved success on a national level.
The student group considers her to be a young woman who holds a title, which represents a pageant notorious for judging women based on their physical appearance. They argue a beauty pageant winner does not represent the majority of students graduating from PSU.
Church initiated the discussion by making two requests of the Oregonian, in regards to how students’ opinions had been represented in their articles and the viewpoint they had assumed. He requested the Oregonian change their position in favor of the protestors, and apologize for what they said in print.
“We don’t plan to reverse our position, and we will not apologize for what we wrote,” Caldwell said.
Church also requested, in an open letter to President Bernstine, that Miss America either be removed as commencement speaker or have a counter commencement speaker to balance opinions. If his requests go unmet, Church is considering organizing a protest on graduation day.
Although it was made apparent early on neither group planned to alter their opinions, they used the meeting as a venue to air their differing opinions.
“Students work very hard to graduate and at the culmination of that rigorous process – to have Miss America speak at that, is almost an insult to that process,” Bryant said.
Nielsen of the Oregonian said, “It bothers me that just because she’s a beautiful person that means that she must not be smart or must not have that much to offer.”
“I think you guys are stereotyping this individual woman to the border of bigotry,” Caldwell said. “You’re making judgments on someone you’ve never met and have no idea what she’s going to say.”
Suzuki responded by saying, “We’re not attacking her personally. We are questioning what she represents and how that relates to PSU graduates. We certainly don’t represent all the voices at PSU.”
“I hope not,” chuckled Caldwell of the Oregonian.
“But your articles sounded like you were supporting only one position,” Suzuki said.
“During editorial board meetings we talked about this issue and there were a lot of differing opinions among the 11 editors. Our board is probably half women and people come from a lot of different backgrounds and ethnicities, so our opinions didn’t just represent one gender or age,” Nielsen said.
Although the Oregonian staff engaged in a lively debate with the students, they made it clear the topic was a frivolous issue to them. Caldwell called it “sophomoric,” also saying he didn’t think the decision over a commencement speaker should be open to debate.
Church has opened the forum for debate over whether students should have a say in who will speak to them at their graduation. In Nielsen’s words, “This issue is largely a matter of opinion.”
Church argued the commencement speaker matters to students and it’s wrong they’re left out of the decision making process. Some students involved in the debate are learning that the opinions that seem to matter are those of the people in charge.
The opinion that matters most in this case is that of PSU President Bernstine.
Bernstine’s position on the issue was made evident in a May 16 article in the Oregonian. “At PSU, he wrote, “I hope we instill in students the importance of tolerance, and not making snap judgments based on things that don’t matter.”