Middlebury College in the recent past has tended to choose noncontroversial, feel-good celebrities to speak at its graduation ceremonies. Christopher Reeve spoke from his wheelchair last year, for example, and Fred Rogers gave a friendly talk in 2001.
The choice is different this time. And the response to the decision to have Rudolph Giuliani speak at the college's 204th commencement exercise has hardly been heartwarming.
The prospect of the former New York City mayor receiving an honorary degree and addressing the Class of 2005 has so far resulted in a published commentary denouncing Giuliani as a "racist"; a communique from President Ronald Liebowitz decrying "unacceptable and embarrassing ignorance" on the part of some students; the resignation of the school newspaper's editor-in-chief; and a counterattack on Giuliani's detractors as exponents of "reactionary, knee-jerk liberalism."
And there's still a month to go before "America's Mayor" actually takes the stage.
Despite demands that Giuliani be dis-invited, there's "no doubt he will be here on May 22," says Eric Davis, a political science professor and the college's designated spokesman on the controversy. There's also little doubt that Giuliani's presence will draw protests from some students, faculty and guests -- probably of the silent, turn-your-back-on-the-speaker variety. A few seniors are already lamenting that their day of celebration will be spoiled by displays of dissent.
The first shot in this battle was a doctored photo that ran in the March 17 edition of the student newspaper alongside a commentary by senior Ben Gore. In the illustration, Giuliani wears a Hitler-style hairdo and moustache.
Gore's opinion piece in The Middlebury Campus described Giuliani as a "racist." It added that prior to the September 11 attacks, many non-elite New Yorkers were coming to regard the mayor as "a fascist." But Gore did not explicitly compare the twice-elected politician to the perpetrator of the Holocaust.
The illustration outraged many at Middlebury, and led Liebowitz to fire off a campus-wide email. "The decision of the Campus' editorial staff to include such a photo reflects a gross misunderstanding of history, let alone of Mr. Giuliani's record. It also reflects an unacceptable and embarrassing ignorance of the magnitude of Hitler's crimes against humanity," wrote Liebowitz, who happens to be the college's first Jewish president.
Stung by her own editorial board's angry reaction to the caricature, Andrea Gissing soon resigned as editor-in-chief of the Campus. In an apologetic farewell editorial, Gissing wrote that she was stepping down "because I cannot say with any certainty that if given the same situation all over again I would have decided any differently."
The same edition of the paper carried a ringing defense of Giuliani's record by junior Andrew Carnabuci, a New Yorker and "registered Democrat." Far from abusing homeless persons, as critics have charged, Giuliani adopted humane policies of providing "clean, safe shelters where they receive job training," Carnabuci wrote. He also disputed claims that police brutality worsened during Giuliani's tenure.
The real reason why so many Middlebury students despise Giuliani is that he's a Republican, Carnabuci continued. Their "enraged response," he said, "is indicative of the reactionary, knee-jerk liberalism, which, lamentably, is extremely fashionable on campus these days."
The college must emphasize that Giuliani is being honored because of his performance in the aftermath of September 11, says Eric Davis. He adds that the former mayor seemed an apt choice in that regard, he adds, because the terrorist attacks took place on the Class of 2005's second day as Middlebury students.
Giuliani spokeswoman Sunny Mindel would say only, "Mr. Giuliani looks forward to addressing the graduating class at Middlebury."