*This story was featured on HCMediaOnline on April 12.
The Hastings College Social Justice League, comprised of organizations such as Radical Notion, Alliance and the Multicultural Student Union, are demanding a public statement from President Don Jackson at the 2016 Commencement ceremony after Governor Pete Ricketts was selected as this year’s speaker.
“We want him [President Don Jackson] to make a public statement during graduation that says the LGBTQ community on our campus matters, and we want to hear their voices and make this campus better for them,” said Grace Rempp, Radical Notion president. “We want him to say this is still important.”
Ricketts was announced as the 2016 Hastings College Commencement speaker on Wednesday, April 6, and his upcoming appearance quickly became a divisive subject across campus. After the announcement, the Social Justice League created an online petition, via change.org, and has since gathered almost 400 signatures and messages of support from students, faculty and alumni across the country.
Members of the Social Justice League hope this petition will carry weight when presented to President Jackson later in the week.
“In our meeting, we’re going to use the petition as credence to what we’re saying. We’re going to voice our displeasure and the displeasure of those who have signed the petition,” said Brian Whetstone, Social Justice League member.
Along with voicing their displeasure with the selection, Whetstone and company hope to discuss the possibility of a future student ambassador who would give input about commencement speakers, so as to keep an issue like this from occurring in the future.
Governor Ricketts has been criticized for his harsh language, anti-gay legislation and lack of support for gay marriage in the state of Nebraska.
Despite the fact that Ricketts is currently holding office, which many acknowledge is perhaps the highest honor in the state, some students and faculty members believe that his mere presence at commencement sends the wrong message.
“What message does this send to our students and faculty — some of whom are gay and transgendered — that we are honoring this person who is not in favor of treating them with the basic human rights everyone else enjoys?” said Dr. Michella Marino, assistant professor of history. “This is a human rights issue, and I am seriously concerned about the message this sends to the campus community.”
While Hastings College is known for their support of LGBTQ rights, some believe the decision to have Ricketts speak could damage years of progress.
“Marginalized groups of any type deserve to be heard in any setting. The campus of HC is headed in the correct direction towards diversity and acceptance,” said Donato Santos, junior sociology major. “Allowing this speaker would only hinder progress.”
This issue hits closer to home for some, more than others. Becca Preisendorf, who is an openly lesbian Social Justice League member, has considered skipping commencement altogether because she feels so strongly against Governor Ricketts speaking at Hastings College.
“I thought about it, but he’s already impacted my life in such a negative way,” Preisendorf said. “I don’t want to let him do that too and keep me from going to my own commencement ceremony. I’m going to see that as a day for me, and I’m not going to keep him from letting me celebrate that.”
In fact, regardless of whether Ricketts discusses policy, some feel it is difficult to separate the two.
“The governor has openly and repeatedly explained his position on gay marriage and is taking no action to encourage the legislature in Nebraska to repeal state discrimination laws against the LGBTQ community,” Marino said. “So even if he doesn’t speak about these issues her at HC, his being invited is an affront to our values as an institution and support of the LGBTQ students and faculty on campus.”
Despite the outcry against the selection, not all students and faculty feel that it is a bad thing for a sitting governor to attend HC’s campus and speak at commencement.
“I think that Governor Ricketts should speak at this year’s commencement because it is truly an honor to have such a high ranking state government official to agree to come speak on behalf of the student body and congratulate our seniors,” said Jennifer Schmidt, president of the HC Republicans and Campus Conservatives.
Although they’re disappointed with the decision, Whetstone, Preisendorf and others acknowledge that they intend to protest in a peaceful, respectful manner.
“There will be a lot of people dressed in rainbows and I think we’ll send a respectful and quiet message,” Rempp said.
Though the Hastings College administration has shown no signs of rescinding Governor Ricketts’s invitation, President Jackson has agreed to speak with HC Media later today about his stance on the issue.