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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

Petition Requests Student Voice in KSG Speaker Choice

By William C. Martin, Crimson Staff Writer

A dean at the Kennedy School of Government (KSG) said yesterday that the school may solicit student input into the invitation of a commencement speaker next year after over 100 students signed a petition expressing their disappointment with this year’s speaker, Mass. Gov. W. Mitt Romney.

Joseph McCarthy, a senior associate dean at KSG, said he would talk with members of the student government in the fall about student involvement in the process, but that the selection would ultimately be made by KSG Dean Joseph S. Nye.

“The dean has told me that broader consultation is a good thing,” McCarthy said, adding that Romney would remain the school’s choice for this year.

Bob G. Manson, a first-year KSG student and the student government’s vice president for communications, confirmed that the student government had discussed setting up a committee to offer student input for next year. He said that Kahlil J. Byrd, the student government’s president, had talked with McCarthy about the matter.

In the petition dated May 5 and delivered to Nye’s office, two students protested the selection of Romney, writing that his record in both government and the private sector fails to match KSG’s ideal of public service.

“Romney chose to dedicate his life primarily to venture capital, not public service,” the petition reads. “[During his campaign for governor] he repeatedly and publicly ridiculed people who have dedicated their lives to public service.”

The petition also claims that Romney does not have the necessary international stature to speak at a KSG commencement.

“A lot of people haven’t heard of him and he hasn’t given them a reason to hear of him,” said Stephen L. Rabin, the petition author and a first-year student at KSG. He added that the school should “choose to honor someone with a universal message.”

While the petition’s authors claimed that their opposition was not partisan, they criticized Romney’s record in office.

“Gov. Romney has already demonstrated a profound lack of courage in the choices he has made in his brief tenure in the public arena by not truthfully or forthrightly addressing the budget crisis,” they wrote. “Rather than being straight with the public he has backhandedly raised fees, forcing localities to raise taxes, and cut the essential services he pledged to protect, while publicly stating he will not be cutting services or raising taxes.”

According to Rabin, 117 students have signed the petition.

McCarthy said Romney’s position as governor, as well as his management of the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City made him a “leading public figure,” and appropriate for the school’s commencement.

McCarthy said that it has been a tradition for the school to invite a wide variety of speakers, which in previous years have included former Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr., former Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna E. Shalala, Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, R-Maine, and the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson.

“If you don’t get objections, you probably aren’t getting anyone who’s done anything,” he said. “We’re running a school of government here.”

But McCarthy conceded that “the area where I think we probably need to do more given the makeup of the school is inviting people with clear international credentials.”

Rabin said that although he disapproved of the Romney choice, he would be content with a commitment from the administration to solicit student input next year.

Rabin said students learned of the decision a few weeks ago in an e-mail from Nye.

At first, Rabin said, he and several other students wrote Nye independently to express their opposition to Romney, and their independent efforts later coalesced into the larger petition.

—Staff writer William C. Martin can be reached at wmartin@fas.harvard.edu.

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