/University responds to concerns over commencement speaker
Graphic by Bell Jackson

University responds to concerns over commencement speaker

By Sarah Clayton

It was announced on March 31 via email that Alabama Representative William “Bill” Poole would be delivering the keynote address at the two in-person graduation ceremonies on May 8 as well as receiving a reward at the ceremonies. Shortly after the announcement, Montevallo student Jessica Thrasher created a petition on Change.org in protest against Poole speaking at graduation.   

“When I got the email that graduation was rescheduled, I was elated. I saw Bill Poole listed as speaker and I wondered who he was. After the year of COVID and social unrest, I wanted to hear from someone who would speak to us about overcoming these challenges and reconciliating (sic) societal divisiveness. What I learned about Poole immediately discouraged that idea,” said Thrasher. 

Within the petition Thrasher wrote a statement about how the student body has experienced the biggest racial social justice movement in a decade, beginning with the death of George Floyd back in May 2020. Bill Poole voted for HB 445 which was introduced on March 18 and is now heading to the House of Representatives. Opponents of the bill, which would expand the definition of rioting, say that it is meant to restrict the right to protest.  

From hearing about what Representative Poole voted against that was when Thrasher started questioning. “ I wondered if other students were upset too. I knew that our student body did not agree with most of his choices. I’ve worked with other students at the Statehouse on some of the same bills that I highlighted from Poole’s voting history.” Thrasher went on to say that Montevallo is a haven for students of color and LGBTQ+ students. That was when she decided to make the petition, “So, I made the petition to try to show UM that many students were also upset about this choice. We would rather not invite someone who has directly denied healthcare access, human rights, and the very identity of our students to our graduation,” said Thrasher.  

There has been a response from this petition. On April 8, Thrasher announced on the petition that the SGA was working hard with Dr. Stewart in favor of Thrasher and everyone signing the petition.  

According to SGA president Thomas Dillard, the university looks for commencement speakers who have made a significant impact on campus or have some connections to the university. That can range from distinguished alumni to influential people who made a difference on campus. Natalie Seavers, SGA vice president, said that it is someone who is a leader in their field, beneficial to the university, and has shown to shine a light on the future for potential graduates, or some combination of the three. President Stewart makes the final decision on who gets to speak.  

When asked if it would be a smart idea to have the students involved with picking the speaker Dillard responded with, “I believe it is a very smart idea. SGA is currently working on legislation to have a formal committee recognized to recommend potential commencement speakers in the future. Dr. Stewart has already stated that for the 2021 winter commencement and every commencement that follows will have a committee that oversees the recommendations of speakers.”  

Seavers agreed, saying, “I think that having students involved in picking the commencement speaker is the best way forward. The students are the entire reason our university has been here since 1896 and having their voices heard in who speaks to them in a keynote address is crucial.”  

As of now Rep. Bill Poole is speaking at the morning commencement on May 8, however, Seavers said that there are considerations for having a member of the esteemed faculty and staff speak at the afternoon commencement for the spring class of 2020 and fall class of 2020. The Alabamian reached out to Bill Poole to talk about his view on the matter, but was unable to get a response. 

When asked, UM President, Dr. John W. Stewart said that suggestions of the speaker come from students, faculty, trustees, staff, and alumni. “I feel that we have enjoyed a pretty balanced offering of speakers including political figures (from both sides of the political aisle), philanthropists, medical researchers. authors, actors, military generals, filmmakers, CEOs, nonprofit executives, environmental activists, educators, and others.  We often take those suggestions forward and extend invitations.  Diversity rightly informs decisions regarding speakers as well,” said Stewart.  

Stewart explained that Poole had been invited in large part for his support of education and his history of working across the aisle. “I invited Representative Poole to serve as last spring‘s commencement speaker a couple of years ago.  Since we did not have that ceremony due to the pandemic,  I was pleased to carry that invitation over to this spring. We have worked closely with him in his role as Chair of the Alabama House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee.” 

Stewart agreed along with Dillard and Seavers that it would be a smart idea to have students involved with picking a commencement speaker. “After learning that there were some students who were concerned about our spring commencement speaker, I had a Zoom meeting with student government officials.  Their questions and concerns were understandable and valid during such a sensitive and anxious time in our nation’s history, and I pledged to them that moving forward,  we will always seek student input through the SGA concerning commencement speakers.” 

Shortly after the meeting with the SGA senate it was decided that there would be two separate speakers. “We spoke with the SGA leadership about a speaker for that later ceremony, and I am pleased to announce that Cynthia Todd, our national alumni association president (and aunt of one of our current students) will deliver that address.   I am glad that a result of the student concern and advocacy expressed will now ensure that we will seek student and faculty input even more in the future.  We are here to serve students so you should always have agency and a voice in administrative decisions,” said Stewart.  

For Stewart, students sharing their opinion is an important part of Montevallo. “I would not have it any other way.  Montevallo is at its best when we are sustaining our liberal arts values of critical thinking and good communication.  That’s what makes our graduates different than those from many other universities…As a liberal arts community of learners, we must always hold precious the free and respectful exchange of ideas, even those with which we don’t agree.” 

Despite the disagreement between members of the student body and the administration, Seavers doesn’t feel as though the situation has resulted in tension between the two groups. Instead Seavers believes that it “Opened a door for the student body and faculty alike to continue to learn from one another.” 

Even though there was not a finalized change to remove Rep. Bill Poole, between the student body and the faculty, there was better communication between the two, and Thrasher is proud of that accomplishment. “I am glad the students were heard. Even though it doesn’t change things this year, I am happy there is a long-term solution in place for future students. That will make an impact that lasts. I did not want to “cancel” Poole, but I wanted the university to realize the impact of this choice. I wanted to speak out about our students’ dissatisfaction with the keynote speaker presently and in the past. I am proud of the university for listening to their student’s voice. I am proud to be a part of Montevallo,” said Thrasher.  

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Sarah Clayton is a writer for The Alabamian. She is a third-year senior theatre major who enjoys all things theatre related. When she is not writing for The Alabamian or busy with classes she enjoys listening to music, reading, making TikToks, watching movies or TV shows she has already seen and hanging out with friends.