*This story was featured on HCMediaOnline on April 13.
Hastings College President Don Jackson issued a statement of support for the LGBTQI communities and specifically, the Hastings College LGBTQ community, but announced he will not give a statement of support or include a message in the program during the 2016 commencement or graduation ceremonies before Governor Pete Ricketts is scheduled to speak.
“I don’t plan to do it at commencement. I will do it everyday between now and then and after, if people want to hear it as it relates to our college and community,” Jackson said. “I think to do it at commencement would be to politicize it, and what I’m encouraging our community to…keep commencement a celebration for the students that are receiving diplomas.”
Jackson offered this particular statement of support, his second within the past week, after the Hastings College Social Justice League requested that he offer a public statement in support of the LGBTQ community at the commencement ceremony. The group also asked for a commitment for long-term student input regarding commencement speaker selections.
He has not committed to adding a student ambassador role, or other form of official student input plans to be put in place; however, he indicated he plans to receive input from Student Association leaders, as he has in year’s past.
“Generally, we have communication that occurs with the Student Association leadership with commencement speakers and there’s a chance to comment on that, but that did not happen this time and I’m sorry about that,” Jackson said.
His first official statement of support regarding the commencement controversy came in the form of an email to all Hastings College students and faculty on April 8. In the email, he applauded the school’s students, faculty and staff for their leadership roles on LGBTQ issues, as well as the school’s progressive support regarding those issues.
The second statement of support came in the form of an exclusive interview with HC Media.
Ricketts, a somewhat controversial figure within the state of Nebraska, has often been criticized for his harsh language, anti-gay legislation and lack of support for gay marriage in the state of Nebraska.
Members of the Hastings College community voiced their displeasure with the selection of Ricketts as the 2016 Commencement speaker soon after the initial announcement. Students, faculty and alumni members expressed their concerns with the decision to bring Ricketts to campus with Jackson directly, but also in the form of an online petition on change.org.
The petition, titled “Let Our Voices Be Heard”, was dispersed via social media and has nearly 400 supporters.
The selection, and specifically the selection process, has been especially criticized over the past week.
“Beyond just his [President Jackson’s] selection, there are a string of problems that were inherently linked with the selection. The students, faculty and a lot of administration were left in the dark about it and the decision was made behind closed doors,”said Brian Whetstone, Hastings College Social Justice League member. “To have someone be selected that’s supposed to represent the student body and the student body not take part in that selection is inherently problematic on its own.”
Jackson acknowledged that, while there are multiple individuals involved in the selection process, he makes the final decision.
“It’s a cadre of people in the president’s office (with input), but ultimately it’s my decision,” he said.
Jackson contends that bringing Governor Ricketts to campus is an honor and his political ideologies should have no impact on his ability to speak at the commencement ceremony.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity for our campus for the top-elected official in our state to see our beautiful campus, see what we’re doing here and see the passion of our students. I know for a fact that he has no intention in using this as a political forum,” Jackson said. “I hope that others would not do that [use it as a political forum] or minimize it as well.”
While the decision to bring Ricketts to campus at all has been criticized, many believe that this particular setting — commencement — isn’t the forum to have such a divisive speaker. Instead, some have asked that a speaker with this sort of controversy attached to them be asked to speak at a forum like the Artist Lecture Series (ALS), which allows for different viewpoints to be shared and discussed.
Jackson agreed that Ricketts would be an ideal candidate to speak at ALS, but also contends that Ricketts is a more than appropriate selection for commencement speaker.
“If we were inviting Governor Ricketts in an ALS-like forum, I would expect him to share his policy and perspectives and ideological views,” Jackson said. “He’s not here to talk about the stances he’s taken on one issue or another, but he’s here in an official capacity governor of the state.”
Members of the Social Justice League and President Jackson have agreed to meet on Thursday to allow both Jackson and the students to voice their concerns face-to-face. Jackson hopes the meeting can produce “good dialogue”.
Jackson said that students, faculty or community members won’t have the opportunity to discuss their differences with Ricketts due to his tight schedule. Jackson noted that doing so might “take away from the commencement ceremony itself.”
A few students have indicated that some form of public protest at the ceremony should be expected, but that is nothing new according to Jackson.
“As in the past, certain graduates and faculty members have, either in their tassels or other parts of their regalia, been able to communicate effectively their support of the LGBTQ communities, and that’s fine,” he said. “As longs as it’s tasteful, I’m supportive of that.”
Jackson expects no hiccups in the May 14 commencement ceremony and believes “we’re going to have a really great commencement ceremony.”