Students and faculty at Occidental College are protesting the school’s choice of Harvard Law School professor Randall L. Kennedy as their commencement speaker for his controversial statements on race-related activism and the film “The Hunting Ground.”
Students aligned with race-related activism groups and sexual assault prevention groups at the Los Angeles college have publicly criticized the choice—announced April 14— and some have called on the school to revoke Kennedy’s invitation.
Their complaints center around a November op-ed signed by Kennedy and 18 other HLS professors that challenges “The Hunting Ground,” a film they say erroneously portrays a sexual assault case at the Law School. Opponents of the choice of Kennedy as speaker also took issue with the professor’s criticism of race-related activism at the Law School.
“Students and faculty at Oxy have been struggling intensely with the administration over sexual assault and racial justice issues in the past three years, so I was surprised that the president selected a speaker who has both publicly gone after a student sexual assault survivor and attributing racial justice activism to an ‘inflated sense of victimization’ on campus,” Occidental professor Caroline Heldman—who appears in “The Hunting Ground”—wrote in an emailed statement.
The vocal opposition prompted Occidental College President Jonathan Veitch to respond in a message to school affiliates defending his choice and emphasizing the importance of listening to a range of viewpoints.
“Randall Kennedy was chosen because he is a thoughtful and nuanced commentator on race in America,” Veitch wrote. “While I understand the critiques raised around the issues of race and sexual assault that have been the subject of so much pain on our campus, it is equally important that we remain receptive to a free and open dialogue that includes a wide variety of perspectives.”
Race-related activism has overtaken Occidental’s campus this academic year, as student groups have demanded better treatment of minorities at the school and called for Veitch’s removal. The movement is one of many taking place at universities across the country, and several Occidental students joined the student activist group Reclaim Harvard Law’s occupation at the Law School in February.
“Your choice of speakers… speak not to your espousal of liberal values of ‘free speech’ and ‘tolerance’ but of your burning desire to obliterate dissent,” students affiliated with the group Coalition at Oxy for Diversity and Equity wrote in an open letter to Veitch.
Kennedy said in an interview that he is not surprised some Occidental affiliates disagree with his views, as race and sexual assault are controversial subjects. Diverging opinions, however, should not bar institutions from inviting speakers, he said.
“Universities, above all places in American life, should be places where debate and free exchange are facilitated and expected,” Kennedy said. “The idea that because a group of people disagrees with somebody, that in it of itself simply cannot or should not be the basis for excluding someone.”
Abhilasha Bhola, a member of the Coalition at Oxy for Diversity and Equity, said she does not take issue with controversial speakers in general. Rather, she criticized the fact that Veitch had complete discretion over the selection of the commencement speaker and chose one who she said “stands against our shared values” and does not represent the senior class well.
Not all students share Bhola’s sentiment. Occidental student Aaron Gottesman estimated that around 15 to 20 percent of the student body is aligned with activism movements on campus, and said he is not among them. Gottesman was pleased with the choice of Kennedy, and said he thinks the backlash is indicative of larger issues on college campuses nationwide relating to safe spaces and free speech.
“There’s a tendency of students at Oxy to transplant national problems—what you’re seeing at Yale and Missouri—to Occidental’s campus,” he said, referring to race-related protests that occurred last fall.“The issues that are being raised are that what he said in his op-eds and books are violent. That speaks to the totalitarian belief that speech is violent, so we need to limit speech.”
After faculty and staff began voicing concerns, Kennedy changed his travel plans to arrive at Occidental a day early in order to meet and talk with students and faculty ahead of his commencement address.
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