As Millersville University students prepare to meet and organize against PA Gov. Tom Corbett as their 2013 commencement speaker and his continuing attacks on public education this Wednesday, university administrators seem hell-bent on providing additional fuel for their outrage.
It appears that the university did not follow its own policies for choosing this year’s commencement speaker and administrators continue to evade direct questions about how Gov. Tom Corbett was chosen. Let me illustrate by showing you part of an exchange I had with Millersville University Director of Communications, Janet Kacskos. I contacted her on March 11 explaining that I was doing some background research for “an article on the petition in opposition to Gov. Corbett speaking at Millersville University’s commencement ceremonies” and asked her the following questions:
- Is there an official process for choosing a Commencement speaker at Millersville? Some other PASSHE universities solicit nominations from students or the university community, for example. Does Millersville have a committee or process for choosing the speaker?
- Will Gov. Corbett receive payment/honorarium for his appearance? If so, how much will he be paid? What are the source of those funds?
- When was the decision made to ask Gov. Corbett to speak at Commencement? I understand that the Governor confirmed in December 2012, but I would like to know when the university made the request. Who made the official request?
- Were students, faculty, or alumni given any input into the decision. If so, how?
Ms. Kacskos responded fairly quickly with the following answers:
- We have a commencement committee that puts together a list of possible speakers.
- Governor Corbett will not be paid.
- Governor Corbett was officially asked by recently retired president, Dr. McNairy in December.
- The commencement committee is made up of members from across the campus community.
I did some additional research on the by-laws of Millersville University’s “commencement committee,” in order to understand the process by which a commencement speaker is chosen. As it turns out, there are actually two committees charged with coordinating commencement events. The “commencement committee” is responsible for coordinating the event as a whole. However, there is a specific committee charged with choosing a commencement speaker, the Commencement Speaker Committee. According to the bylaws, the Commencement Speaker Committee is required to meet once a year to “generate a pool of potential commencement speakers for consideration by the University president” and the “speakers for the spring and winter commencements shall be drawn from the pool generated each fall by the committee.” If none of the speakers in the pool can be secured, the bylaws allow for the University administration to obtain a commencement speaker “from other avenues.” Note that the bylaws allow for this “other avenues” option when “a speaker cannot be obtained from the pool.” The bylaws also specify how the committee is to be composed as to broadly represent a wide range of university constituencies, as it should.
The Millersville Faculty Senate publishes its committee membership lists, so I decided to contact members of the Commencement Speaker Committee directly. Here’s what I sent them:
I am the editor of Raging Chicken Press, an online progressive, media site based out of Kutztown, PA. I am doing some background research for an article on the petition in opposition to Gov. Corbett speaking at Millersville University’s commencement ceremonies. I am writing to you because you are listed as one of the members of the university Commencement Speaker Committee for 2012-2013. According to Janet Kacskos, the former president of Millersville, Dr. McNairy, made the invitation in December.
I am interested in finding out more about the committee’s reasons for making the invitation to Gov. Corbett. According to the Committee roster, VP of Advancement, Jerry Eckert, chaired the committee. He also sat on the Governor’s higher education panel. From what some people have told me, Eckert was generally an advocate for PASSHE funding. I am trying to understand the logic behind the decision to invite the Governor to give MU’s commencement address.
If you can help shed any light on the committee’s deliberations, I would greatly appreciate it. Thanks in advance for your help.
I did not receive any significant response from any member of the committee, but I did receive the following email from Janet Kacskos about 13 minutes after I sent the above email to members of the Commencement Speaker Committee:
No need to send multiple emails across campus. I’m the spokesman for the University and will be happy to answer your questions.
I responded to Kocskos’s email by first explaining that while I fully understand that it is her job to the be official spokesperson for the university, it is my job to go beyond simply reprinting official statements and try to understand the story. And the story that was beginning to emerge was that for whatever reason, the university administration was unwilling to discuss the process by which Gov. Corbett was chosen to be this year’s commencement speaker – something that I did not expect when I first contacted Kocskos. That’s the benefit of a clear policy as Millersville has. When you have a clear policy, then when someone asks about the process, you can show them. But for whatever reason, the official position of the university administration seemed to include not responding to my questions about how the decision was actually made.
I received a phone call as I was involved with my email back-and-forth with Kocskos trying to get a better answer than “Governor Corbett is a high-ranking public official, and we’ve had several high-ranking public officials speak at commencement over the years,” to my question as to why he was invited to speak at Millersville’s commencement. The caller chose to remain anonymous, but told me that it would be “interesting” to ask Janet Kocskos and Jerry Eckert if the Commencement Speaker Committee ever met this year and if faculty and students had any input in choosing Gov. Corbett. Interesting indeed. So, I wrote the following simple email to Janet Kocskos:
And to my previous questions, Did the committee meet do discuss Corbett’s invitation?
That’s the point at which my emails went unanswered. A day later, March 13, I followed up with this email:
I have one last question for now. Is it the university’s position that it followed its own governance policy regarding choosing a commencement speaker as laid out in the policy on the Commencement Speaker Committee?
If so, when did the committee convene? If not, who was responsible for making the decision regarding the 2013 commencement speaker?
Thank you in advance for answering my questions.
Again no response. I decided it was time to hear from the Vice President of Advancement and chair/convener of the Commencement Speaker Committee (and, yes, a member of Gov. Corbett’s Higher Education Panel), Jerry Eckert. I sent Eckert the following two questions, copying Janet Kocskos:
1. Since you are listed as the convener/chair of the Commencement Speaker Committee, can you confirm that the committee met this academic year in order to generate a pool of speakers? If it did meet, did the full committee meet? Did the committee have any input regarding the selection of Gov. Corbett? I ask this question because two different sources have suggested that the committee did not meet this academic year.
2. I’ve spoken to two separate members of the Millersville University Community who have suggested that you and you only were the one who made the decision to invite Gov. Corbett to be the Commencement speaker. When pressed, it was unclear to me whether this was a reasoned guess on their part or if they had some first-hand knowledge of this. Do you have any comment?
A few hours later, I received a response from Kacskos with a forwarded copy of my email and Jerry Eckert’s responses to my questions. This is how he responded:
[to question 1]
The committee is only convened as necessary. I have been working from the committee’s previously developed pool of suggested speakers. It includes statewide elected officials such as the Governor, U.S. senators, U.S. congressmen, state senators and reps. The University president generally invites commencement speakers from the pool; policy allows for the president to invite a speaker from other avenues as well.
[to question 2]
I advise, the president invites our speaker. This year the Governor was invited; Millersville’s commencement speakers in the past have included Lieutenant Governors Mark Singel and Mark Schweiker and other state officials, as well as Congressman Robert Walker.
Again, general answers evading the real question, but still something. I followed up with several clarifying questions. Here’s what I wrote:
Thank you very much for your reply.
Just so I get this right, here’s how I understand your response. Please let me know if this is in any way inaccurate:
- the Commencement Speaker Committee did not meet this academic year to discuss a pool. Mr. Eckert determined that is was not necessary for the committee to meet.
- what follows from #1 is that faculty or students or other members of the committee did not have direct input in the choice of Gov. Tom Corbett for the 2013 Commencement speaker.
- it is the judgment of the Millersville administration, Jerry Eckert in particular, that the by-laws of the committee only require the committee to meet “when necessary.”
- a pool of candidates was generated by the committee at some point in the past and that is the pool from which Tom Corbett’s name was drawn.
- Mr. Eckert advised former President McNairy to choose Gov. Tom Corbett and she issued the invitation.
I have a few questions to clarify Mr. Eckert’s answers to my questions.
- The Commencement Speaker Committee bylaws state: “The terms of office begin 1 October, and the committee shall meet at least one time per year, usually during the fall semester, but at other times at the call of the convener or a majority of the members of the committee.” Mr. Eckert said that the Committee only meets when necessary. Does that mean that the committee DID meet at least once during the term of office? And, when was the “previously developed pool” of potential speakers from which Mr. Eckert was working generated? Did the committee meet following the October 1, 2012 term of office?
- Mr. Eckert states that the “previously developed pool” of potential speakers “includes statewide elected officials such as the Governor, U.S. senators, U.S. congressmen, state senators and reps.” Did that “previously developed pool” of potential commencement speakers include the name of the current governor, Tom Corbett?
- Is #5 accurate, or did former president McNairy choose to not follow Mr. Eckert’s advice and issue an invitation to Gov. Corbett?
Thank you again for taking the time to ensure the accuracy of these statements and to answer my detailed questions.
That email was sent on March 14 and I have yet to receive a reply. Whether the administration determined that they should not answer detailed questions or if they just got tired of my persistence, I don’t know. What I do know is that the university administration is unwilling to answer fairly simple questions about process in any meaningful detail - a process that is clearly laid out in their own policies. I do know that a number of people at Millersville University have indicated to me that the Commencement Speaker Committee did not meet – a violation of policy, but those people are unwilling to go on the record saying so. I also know that I am continually told that people are unwilling to go on the record because of a “culture of fear” at the university, but no one is willing to share evidence of this “culture of fear” or provide specific examples when faculty, staff, or students have faced retaliation for speaking out against the administration. And I know there is a history here. In fall 2012, there was a huge controversy on the Millersville University campus surrounding the search for a new president. As you might have guessed, that controversy involved claims that the university administration violated its own policies for selecting a president.
It is also noteworthy that Millersville’s Vice President of Advancement, Jerry Eckert, served on Corbett’s Higher Education Panel and one of the most recent appointments to Millersville’s Council of Trustees is Kevin Harley. Harley was serving as Gov. Corbett’s director of communications and press secretary when Corbett appointed him to the council in spring 2012. It seems fair to ask whether Corbett’s selection as this year’s commencement speaker has anything to do with the close relationship members of the administration and Council of Trustees have with the Corbett administration. Think about it. According to the most recent Franklin and Marshall poll, Gov. Corbett’s approval ratings are the lowest of any sitting governor in the 18 year history of the poll. Not exactly the person that would jump to the top of your list as an uplifting speaker to honor your graduates.
Corbett’s record of decimating public education in the state also raises serious questions about administrators’ judgment in selecting him to speak at commencement. According to the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center (PBPC), for example, Corbett’s first budget proposal targeted education for the deepest cuts. In their analysis of the 2011-2012 budget, the PBPC found that,
Public schools and universities bear the brunt of the reductions in the 2011-2012 budget. Grants to school districts, including the basic education subsidy, reimbursements to school districts for the loss of students to charter schools and other program cuts total more than $860 million, while higher education institutions, including Penn State and the three other state-related universities [Lincoln, Pitt, and Temple], community colleges, and the 14 State System of Higher Education [PASSHE] universities are reduced by $245 million [brackets mine].
So, the Millersville University administration thought that a Governor with an appalling approval rating and a history of gutting public education from Kindergarten through higher ed was the best person to address their graduates this year? Either we have a significant lack of judgment here, or someone in the Governor’s office is looking for a venue to launch his 2014 reelection campaign. Frankly, the latter seems more plausible. Let’s face it, the social codes around commencement ceremonies make it much more difficult to mobilize a mass protest. People are less likely to challenge the Governor, heckle him, chant, or try to hold him accountable for his policies during an event that is supposed to be about “celebrating the graduates.” I’d put money on the fact that Corbett’s communications people (with insider help from their former boss, Kevin Harley, perhaps?) have already prepared their narratives for how to respond to protests. They will say something along the lines of “it’s a shame that a few discontented people have tried to disrupt what is supposed to be an occasion for families to celebrate the achievements of their daughters and sons.” I’d bet on that because it’s a script that’s already written and that his people used when his appearance as the commencement speaker at Albright College was protested in 2011. On that occasion, Albright faculty voted unanimously NOT to grant Corbett the customary honorary degree and some faculty broke off from the official procession to join protests.
It is also clear to me that the “Student Response to Corbett” Organizing Meeting called for tomorrow evening on Millersville University’s campus is happening at a critical time. If it is true that individuals are concerned about speaking out, then this is the meeting they need to be at.
It could be argued that the issues I am raising here are relatively insignificant in the broad scheme of things. I would take issue with that understanding of what is happening at Millersville University. The fact is that “big issues” such as the erosion of shared governance, the corrosion of our democracy, the advance of corporate control, and the theft of the commons do not generally happen in one explosive, national moment like a presidential election or a monumental piece of legislation. Sometimes they happen like that, for sure. But most of time the battles are decentralized – they happen in our workplaces, our towns, our shopping centers, our churches, our families. When students stand up and say “No!” to a university administration violating its own policy to bring an enemy of public education to speak at a commencement ceremony, they are demanding accountability and fairness. When faculty protest that they were not consulted in a decision-making process, they are refusing to be complicit in rolling back democracy. And when students, faculty, staff, alumni, and community members decided to organize through social media and meet face-to-face to generate a collective response, they are asserted that together they are strong and that they can influence their community.