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Haverford commencement speaker backs out

Haverford College's commencement speaker backed out after students and several faculty opposed his appearance.

Another commencement speaker has fallen to student protests.

Robert J. Birgeneau, former chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley has backed out of speaking at Haverford College's commencement scheduled for Sunday, following concerns expressed by Haverford students and several professors over his leadership during a 2011 incident when UC police used force on students protesting college costs.

Haverford President Daniel H. Weiss announced on Tuesday morning that Birgeneau has declined the college's invitation to speak and receive an honorary degree. Birgeneau is known for his support of undocumented and minority students, but became controversial when students, as part of the Occupy movement, held non-violent protests and were subject to force by university police.

"The Board of Managers, campus colleagues, and I express our appreciation for the views of those who were opposed to Dr. Birgeneau's selection," Weiss said in a letter to the campus community. "It is nonetheless deeply regrettable that we have lost an opportunity to recognize and hear from one of the most consequential leaders in American higher education. Though we may not always agree with those in positions of leadership, I believe that it is essential for us as members of an academic community to reaffirm our shared commitment to the respectful and mindful process by which we seek to learn through inquiry and intellectual engagement."

It's the second time this month that student protests have led to a speaker withdrawing. Condoleezza Rice, former secretary of state, withdrew as Rutgers University's commencement speaker after faculty and students mounted a vigorous campaign, citing her role in the Iraq war. Picking commencement speakers has become increasingly divisive across the country. Last year, Swarthmore College's speaker withdrew in the wake of a protest.

At Haverford, the controversy began after more than 40 students and three professors - all Berkeley alums — wrote a letter to Birgeneau, urging him to meet nine conditions including publicly apologizing, supporting reparations for the victims, and writing a letter to Haverford students explaining his position on the events and "what you learned from them."

Birgeneau declined in a short, sharply-worded letter.

Senior Michael Rushmore, 23, a political science major from London, said he would rather that Birgeneau had met at least some of the conditions and appeared at commencement.

"Given that he was unwilling to do any of that, this is a minor victory in solidarity with the students at Berkeley and I'll take that," he said.

Haverford already has three other commencement speakers, so Birgeneau will not be replaced, said spokesman Chris Mills.

Weiss met with students and other members of the Haverford community last week in an effort to broker a resolution but none was reached.

"It was, for me, an illuminating and valuable conversation, which regrettably did not include Dr. Birgeneau," Weiss said in the email. "In offering congratulations to our students and their families, Dr. Birgeneau also expressed disappointment at not being able to increase awareness of what he believes to be the defining social justice issue of this generation of graduates: the plight of 11 million undocumented American immigrants. Under Dr. Birgeneau's leadership, Berkeley became the first public university in the United States to offer undocumented students comprehensive financial aid."