Thursday, May 25, 2006

The Graduation Speech of the Year

I want to offer my personal congratulations to Ben Kessler who graduated this year from the University of St. Thomas. He gave what is probably the best commencement speech of the year.

The St. Paul Pioneer Press reported it this way:

A spring term that began with controversy at the University of St. Thomas ended the same way Saturday when a student used part of his commencement address to admonish people he considered "selfish," including women who use birth control.
The remarks by Ben Kessler, a well-known student recently honored by peers and faculty as Tommie of the Year, led to catcalls and boos during commencement at the Catholic university in St. Paul. Others booed those who were booing. Some students walked out on their own graduation ceremony.
Buzz about the incident dominated post-graduation parties, spread throughout the community and sparked a flurry of e-mails. By Monday, there were scattered requests to strip Kessler of his Tommie of the Year award and questions about why St. Thomas officials didn't try to pull the plug on Kessler's speech as the crowd's unhappiness intensified.
"He definitely ruined the day for pretty much everyone in the audience," said Darin Aus, who was awarded his bachelor's degree Saturday and stayed for the entire ceremony. "He made people mad enough to leave their own graduation."
Kessler, a celebrated football player with a deep Catholic faith, apologized Monday in a written statement distributed by the university.
"Instead of providing hope to all, I offended some by my words and by my decision to speak those words at commencement," he wrote.
He was unavailable for comment beyond the statement.
The university's president, the Rev. Dennis Dease, also expressed regret "that graduates and their families and guests were offended by Mr. Kessler's remarks." Dease said he told Kessler it was inappropriate for him to use commencement to express his opinions.
Kessler's speech was the latest in a series of controversies that has divided the campus. It began with university decisions last year that kept a lesbian choral director from traveling with her partner and kept an unmarried heterosexual couple from sharing a room on a student trip.
Those decisions, affirmed last month in a new university travel code, led to a fear among some staff and students that those who aren't Catholic or whose lives don't reflect Catholic doctrine aren't welcome. St. Thomas officials said that wasn't true but defended the travel policy position vigorously as consistent with Catholic values.
Commencement offered the chance to put all the divisive issues aside. As is the custom, the student-selected Tommie of the Year speaks at graduation.
"The speech started out pretty normal," Aus said. Then, he said, Kessler began talking about his disappointment at fellow students after a spring dance when a food fight became intense enough that security was summoned.
"His disappointment kind of snowballed," Aus said.
Kessler also alluded to the unmarried professors caught up in the travel policy battles, calling them selfish. And he then called women who use birth control selfish.
He also called himself selfish and said he needed to be a better person, said university spokesman Doug Hennes.
Some defended his remarks, while others said he had no business raising hot topics on a day dedicated to students and families celebrating years of hard academic work.
Aus and other students were upset that St. Thomas officials didn't stop the speech.
"If someone were to start talking about their beliefs on gay rights, I guarantee you someone from the administration would have put an end to it right away," Aus said.
After Kessler's speech, Thomas Rochon, the university's chief academic officer, told the crowd it takes courage to express one's convictions. Aus and others saw it as Rochon validating the remarks. But Hennes said Monday that wasn't the case.
Kessler was a defensive tackle on the St. Thomas football team and had a 4.0 grade-point average. He majored in philosophy and business, was an undergraduate seminarian at the university and plans to become a Roman Catholic priest.
"It takes a tough person to play football," Kessler said in a Pioneer Press profile last fall. "Well, what kind of priests do we want to have? We want someone who is internally strong and externally strong. That's the kind of priest who can change society."

I do not see anything offensive about the speech. Any student attending a Catholic university should expect to hear solid Catholic doctrine and moral teaching. Unfortunately that it not always the case with regard to the students and the institution.

You can watch the video here. Warning: there is foul language.

No comments: