Faculty criticize Sonoma State President Judy Sakaki over apology for provocative graduation poem

Dozens of SSU faculty members, staff and students have signed a letter protesting Judy Sakaki's comments calling a provocative poem's inclusion in commencement a 'mistake.'|

Sonoma State University President Judy Sakaki is facing public criticism from a group of college faculty, staff and students over her apology to a parent who was angry about a provocative, politically charged poem read last month by a student during a commencement ceremony, an address that Sakaki called a “mistake.”

The campus blowback came in the form of a letter to Sakaki, signed by more than 100 people, including at least 23 SSU faculty, as well as college staff, alumni and students. It expressed support for the poem's author and alarm over any stance by the university that would limit “open discourse on issues of social and political significance.”

“Such public expression is a key role of universities in a democracy, and we found that the use of a certain profanity and the subject matter, including police violence on communities of color, did not exceed the boundaries of safe expression, nor constitute ‘hate speech' as accused by one of a few critics,” the letter stated.

The letter, written and circulated by SSU anthropology professor Eric McGuckin, breathed new life into a controversy that has roiled the Rohnert Park campus since the May 20 ceremony, when graduating senior Dee Dee Simpson recited her poem on stage at Weill Hall in the Green Music Center.

Simpson, who is African-American, railed against police violence that has claimed black lives, and made disparaging references to President Donald Trump and Fox News. The verse contained a number of expletives.

Sakaki, responding to up to five complaints received by the university in the immediate aftermath, told one of the parents in an email that she regretted the inclusion of Simpson's poem in the commencement ceremony, blaming a new graduation format for insufficient oversight of program content.

“(While) this individual student is among our accomplished poets, having her offer this particular piece at the Arts and Humanities commencement was a mistake,” Sakaki said in the email. “It simply should not have happened.”

Difference in opinion

That apology has upset a number of people in the Sonoma State community, including the outspoken group of professors who signed onto McGuckin's letter.

“I was disappointed,” said Elaine Leeder, SSU professor of sociology and dean emerita of the school of social sciences. “I did understand that it's a (public relations) issue and that she had to do something to placate the complaint, but I would have liked her to comment in her apology from a place of open discourse in a university and that these things are encouraged based on critical thinking.”

Sakaki, who just finished her first full year at the helm of SSU, has attracted wide support and early praise for moves to focus on improved outreach and expanded services for students, including greater use of the acclaimed Green Music Center. The dispute over the poem and the university's response represents the first public conflict between the new president and a group of SSU faculty.

Sakaki has declined over several weeks to be interviewed about the matter. Her spokesman on Thursday indicated she did not have time in her schedule to answer questions about the ongoing dispute.

“President Sakaki is, always has been and always will be a strong advocate and supporter of free speech and freedom of expression,” SSU spokesman Gary Delsohn said in an email. “But the bottom line is that profanity is not appropriate for a commencement ceremony, where entire families are in attendance.”

The nearly two dozen faculty who have signed onto McGuckin's May 31 letter disagree.

“We are alarmed that speech on college campuses is being challenged nationwide,” the letter stated. “Many of us felt Ms. Simpson's recitation was perhaps the most impactful address of the ceremony, and we hope that in the future, rather than calling for apologies, such controversies are seen as an opportunity for the administration to support our students, and encourage further dialogue and learning.”

Simpson, who graduated with a degree in English, has declined requests for comment or to share a copy of her poem. No recordings of the reading have surfaced. According to witnesses, she spoke of how black mothers instruct their children how to behave around police to stay alive. She also apparently chastised those upset by Trump's policies, noting that nonwhite people have suffered government abuses for decades.

Parents speak out

One parent, Cara Freedman of San Diego, whose daughter was graduating, last month described being “shocked” by the poem and its use of profanity. Freedman and her ex-husband, Marc Grossman, also of San Diego, each fired off angry emails to Sakaki after the ceremony.

Freedom of speech

But Peter Phillips, a sociology professor who endorsed McGuckin's letter, said freedom of speech and poetic expression “are important values at Sonoma State University even if it makes some folks uncomfortable.”

“SSU should not undermine free speech values by apologizing to the uncomfortable,” Phillips, publisher of Project Censored, a rundown of stories said to be ignored or underreported by the mainstream media, said in an email.

Sakaki, in her written response to the faculty letter, said she believed “a university should include, even encourage, various views and perspectives.”

“I also will continue to be a strong advocate for and supportive of students,” she wrote. “Both I and my Cabinet will take your thoughts, feelings, perspectives and advice into consideration going forward.”

The university last month graduated the largest class in its history, with more than 2,650 students receiving diplomas in a total of six ceremonies over two days.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @renofish.

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