Under the direction of the Board of Trustees, President Fritz Erickson has invited Michigan’s Governor Rick Snyder to be the Spring commencement speaker in spite of the objections of students, faculty, and the NMU-AAUP. The governor recently accepted the invitation. According to President Erickson’s press release, “In my mind, it was an important selection to make because it reflects our commitment to consider multiple opinions and perspectives. We don’t hold a litmus test for people who come to our campus and present. Universities should support the free exchange of ideas.”
At both the national and local levels, AAUP absolutely supports the free exchange of ideas, opinions, and perspectives. But support or resistance to Governor Snyder’s commencement address has nothing to do with free speech. He is certainly free to speak on NMU’s campus and he has no shortage of opportunities to deliver his message to the public. Resistance from the NMU-AAUP Executive Committee and many others on campus concerns the meaning of commencement, and how Snyder’s appearance damages that. Commencement is not a platform for promoting diverse political perspectives. Commencement is our celebration of the efforts and accomplishments of our students, as well as the support of their families and friends. Commencement speakers are role models who can inspire graduates to use their educations in positive ways. Snyder may be an inspiring role model for some, but he is not for most at NMU as evidenced by over 90% of faculty and students opposing his appearance in the only available surveys. His anti-union activities, role in the poisoning of many Flint citizens, and lack of support for civil rights, education, and environmental issues are valid reasons for our students, their families, and the university community to reject Snyder for a central role in celebrating graduation.
So why, if not for the benefit of our graduates, is Snyder giving our spring commencement address? All of our Board of Trustees were appointed by Snyder, and his vocal advocate at their last meeting used to work for him. The Board has abrogated their most central duty – to do what is best for NMU rather than what furthers their own agendas, personal relationships, or societal perspectives. This decision damages NMU; it seems that the Board of Trustees did not think this through or simply did not care.
Members of our AAUP chapter and administration have worked hard over the past several years to minimize the confrontational nature of collective bargaining. We have tried to implement truly shared governance and to work together toward our common goal – to make NMU a better university. We sometimes have differing perspectives, but we interact supportively and with respect. The Board of Trustees have created conflict where it need not exist.
Students have many universities to choose from; one of the reasons that they choose NMU is the welcoming, friendly, cooperative feel of the campus. AAUP has also worked diligently with administration to build this gestalt. Several years ago, the university community was rife with conflict, confrontation, accusations, and a generally bad vibe. This hurt admissions. The more recent feeling that we are all in this together with a shared purpose has a big effect on whether students want to come here and want to stay. The Board of Trustees has reintroduced discord and controversy. The resulting bad publicity tarnishes the image of our university and hurts enrollment.
The February meeting of President Erickson’s Strategic Planning and Budgeting Advisory Committee focused on alumni engagement and the many ways that dedicated alumni enhance our university. The last and perhaps biggest event in the NMU experience of seven hundred graduates will surely be marred by this conflict. That is no way to make our graduates into committed and loyal alumni.
The inability of the Board to understand or acknowledge that they have made a mistake suggests hubris and a sense of entitlement. That is not what is best for NMU, nor does it honor our graduates.