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For a university with a legion of Nobel Prize winners and an impressive list of alumni who sit on various corporate boards and the like, University of California, Berkeley has been down on its luck lately. The campus that nurtured my academic curiosity for four (OK, five) years of undergraduate study has dealt with, in this year alone, a law school that wants to privatize, tuition rising at an outrageously fast clip for a public college and being stood up by Danny Glover.
Yep. The university invited the onetime action movie star and prominent political activist to speak at its May 9 commencement ceremony for graduating seniors. Glover's academic credentials are respectably average (he's a San Francisco State University alumnus), but he is in many ways a perfect match for the universitya proud leftist (which protects him for the excitable protest-for-protest's-sake contingent of students) who, according to state voter registration records, has a Berkeley address. He could have slept in graduation morning and taken a bus up the hill to the university's Greek Theatre.
But two weeks ago, the liberal actor staged his own protest of the liberal university and said he wouldn't cross a picket line of striking janitors to speak at the commencement.
That's right: UC Berkeley, home of the 1964 Free Speech movement whose liberal student body scared conservatives into electing Ronald Reagan governor, was snubbed by an actor best known as Mel Gibson's Lethal Weapon sidekick. For a back-up speaker, the university looked in-house to its chancellor, Robert Birgeneau.
A prestigious university getting stood up by an actor may seem odd to most people. But for Birgeneau and Berkeley, Glover's snub was merely an episode of déjà vu. Last year, state Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez declined an invitation to speak to the Class of 2006 for reasons similar to Glover'srefusing to cross a picket line.
Granted, it's unfair to judge a university as large and complex as UC Berkeley by a roster of graduation speakers. But for the last few years, graduation season has made Berkeley look like your backyard JC up against the Harvards and Stanfords. Indeed, Harvard scored Bill Clinton as its keynote speaker this year.
So what does this mean for UC Berkeley? Are even the most seasoned public figures scared off by a university that too eagerly clings to its reputation as a hotbed for dissent (or just silly activism)? I wouldn't blame them.
In 2000, a reshuffled commencement program prompted UC Berkeley's top student to deliver a political tongue-lashing during her speech to graduating students and their families. Her victim? Then-Secretary of State Madeline Albright, who had delivered her address minutes earlier and politely took the drumming of popular half-truths and distorted figures over the Clinton administration's policy on Iraq. In the audience, students refused to let pomp and circumstance rule for just a few hours, many of them protesting during Albright's speech.
The university recovered the following year, landing former U.S. Atty. Gen Janet Reno for the 2001 commencement. But in 2002, the university trotted out Olympic gold-medalist skier Jonny Mosely (who at the time didn't have a bachelor's degree) to speak to graduating seniors, sparking popular rumors that UC Berkeley was campus non grata for anyone who had any hopes of seeking elected office. But UC Berkeley again came back with news anchor Ted Koppel and Jihad vs. McWorld author Benjamin Barber the next two years.
Alas, the university that lured John F. Kennedy to speak at its 94th anniversary ceremony sank back into a graduation funk in 2006, the first of two times UC Berkeley couldn't produce so much as a backup for its commencement.
But what good would all this commiserating do without a suggestion? Consider this my plea to Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich, the long-shot Democratic presidential hopeful, to volunteer as UC Berkeley's back-up keynote speaker in 2008. Of course, by this time next year, the Democratic presidential nominee will already have emerged, but Kucinich didn't back out of the race until the party's convention in 2004. There's no reason to believe he won't still be a candidate for president this time next year.
While I was a student at Berkeley, Kucinich braved the hostile political waters and delivered a well received speech. Never since watching Paul Simon take a stage have I seen a man under 5'8" draw such raucous applause from several thousand screaming fans.
What do you say, Dennis?
Paul Thornton is a researcher for the Editorial Pages department. Send us your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org.