Graduates cheered and waved and the scent of freshly cut flowers brightened the air Saturday as thousands of Sonoma State University students and their families attended the school's 50th anniversary commencement ceremony.
While the mood was sunny and exuberant, the campus ceremonies shared the stage with quiet protests against the university's decision to present honorary doctorates to Sanford Weill, a former chief executive of Citigroup, and his wife Joan Weill, for their philanthropic contributions.
The Weills donated $12 million to SSU for Green Music Center. Part of the center is now named the Joan & Sanford I. Weill Hall, Lawn and Commons. The couple is nationally recognized for philanthropy in the arts and education.
But throughout the day, protestors peacefully decried the university's decision to honor Weill, saying that his role in lobbying for the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, which was enacted during the Great Depression to protect depositors' money from risky speculation, contributed to the financial meltdown that began in late 2007.
As President Ruben Armin?a conferred the honorary degrees, students, community members and a handful of professors one-by-one stood and turned their backs to the stage, until about two dozen were standing in silent disapproval. Another group of students stood and cheered as the degrees were awarded.
"Joanie and I are happy to be working here at this university to create a new part of the university that will be really transformative," Weill told the crowd. "The music and dance center will bring to this campus a culture that will really enhance the student life in years to come."
Weill declined to be interviewed, saying through a university spokeswoman that he wanted the day to be about the graduates and their celebration.
The beach balls came out and were bounced among the seats as Alison Sutton, a communications major, told her fellow graduates they should not fear making mistakes as they left college life behind.
<CS8.6>"I wish the bookstore sold shirts that said, &‘I have no idea what I'm doing after graduation, so please don't ask,'" Sutton said.
</CS>Speeches touched on the difficulties students faced as the university weathered budget cuts, larger class sizes and higher tuition bills.
"We've been through a lot as a student body," said Alex Boyer, outgoing president of the Associated Students. "The best thing we can do is remain optimistic, and keep searching for meaningful opportunities, with the faith that it will work out."
Proud families held bright bouquets and balloons, some angling for a view among the crowds while others relaxed on picnic blankets under the shadeof trees. Maureen Gillmore, a proud aunt of graduate Jodi Greer, kept cool by spritzing a mist from a portable fan.
"We feel great," said Greer's father, Tim Greer, 56, a retired postmaster from Hidden Valley Lake. "It's a pretty good accomplishment for kids now to make it that far, especially the way things are today."
Graduates, sporting glitter covered caps, used their cell phones to find families in the stands.
Bill Wadsworth, 72 of Occidental, held a sign that read "Weill's acclaim SSU's shame."
"This is a disgrace for SSU to honor this man who has caused so much harm," Wadsworth said.
Therese Mughannam-Walrath, 64, a bookkeeper from Santa Rosa who also is a parent of an SSU graduate, said a lot of people took fliers she distributed to explain the protest.