The graduating class of Pasadena City College will, at long last, have a speaker.
Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, who was invited, then disinvited, then reinvited by school administrators put them out of their public relations misery Saturday.
"I've said it before and I'll say it again,” Black told the campus newspaper. “It will be my honor to deliver the commencement address for PCC's graduating class of 2014."
“As a graduating student, I am extremely relieved to have a speaker at all, and we’re going to have a really great speaker,” said Christine Michaels, 21, who is also outgoing editor in chief of the campus newspaper, the Courier. “As editor, I’m also relieved, because hopefully we won’t have to be writing any more negative news about graduation.”
“I'm delighted that we are going to have a great commencement, and a great commencement speaker,” said Ross Selvidge, the trustee who pushed to reinvite Black.
The weeks-long debacle began in March, after Black, 39, accepted a speaking invitation that had been extended to him by PCC student trustee Simon Fraser at the behest of a school dean. Of eight luminaries contacted, Black, who graduated from PCC in 1994, was the only potential speaker to accept the invitation.
But PCC President Mark W. Rocha, Assistant Supt. Robert Bell and Anthony Fellow, president of the Pasadena Area Community College District Board of Trustees, decided without telling Fraser or other board members that Black would not be a suitable speaker, as he had been involved in a tangled sex tape “scandal” in 2009. (Someone had purloined a 2006 sex tape from a former boyfriend’s computer and sold it to websites after Black got famous. Black won a $100,000 judgment against the thief.)
School officials, who misunderstood Black’s situation, feared he might give the school a “bad name,” as Fellow told the Courier, because two PCC teachers had been involved in sex scandals in 2013.
“It seems like they were more concerned about their image than about celebrating commencement,” Michaels said.
Without consulting the board of trustees, the trio decided to replace Black as speaker. They invited in his place Dr. Eric Walsh, Pasadena’s director of public health. Walsh, a preventive health specialist who founded a dental clinic in Pasadena and has worked closely with HIV/AIDS patients, is also a Seventh-day Adventist pastor whose extensive archive of speeches and sermons is readily available online.
Some of the school’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students, including Fraser, expressed alarm at Walsh’s statements and questioned whether he was an appropriate replacement for Black, who won a screenwriting Oscar in 2009 for “Milk,” has written a play about the trial over California’s gay marriage ban called “8” and is a leading Hollywood LGBT activist.
Walsh has said “Will & Grace,” one of the first prime-time television shows to normalize gay relationships, was the work of the devil. He said that AIDS was the result of people not following “God’s plan.” He once boasted of refusing to treat a patient who had a pentagram tattoo, and he said those who teach evolution are “Satan’s ministers.” He called Disney a “dark empire” and said the devil reaches children through popular culture such as cartoons and comic books.
On Tuesday, Walsh abruptly withdrew from commencement, citing an “unforeseen scheduling conflict.”
Two days later, Pasadena City Manager Michael J. Beck announced that Walsh would be put on paid administrative leave pending an investigation into his statements.
Like Michaels, I am relieved. Yes, I was prepared to deliver the fake commencement speech I wrote for PCC’s graduating class of 2014. But happily, I can tear it up now.
No one is happier than Fraser. “I’m ecstatic,” he told me Saturday. “I’m glad that Black can be forgiving and be willing to put the ugliness of the way that this all happened behind him to give a fantastic commencement experience to all our students.”
In a news release Saturday, Rocha said he was delighted that Black had agreed to speak. “Mr. Black’s career represents a rare blend of public leadership and creativity,” Rocha said in a statement. “Additionally, he has generously committed his attention and resources to fighting for LGBTQ equality, the arts, and — not least of all — education.”
The graduation speaker debacle may have ended, but somehow, I don’t think the PCC admistration’s troubles are over just quite yet. Stay tuned.