Politics-Free Commencement · 04 May 2006

Filed under: Press Coverage

By Vincent Carroll--Rocky Mountain News--05/05/06

Professor Tom Altherr is undoubtedly right: "The least we can do," the Metro State history professor told his faculty senate colleagues in an e-mail, "is give (students) a rousing, politics-free commencement. This is their day! Not Gale Norton's."

But Altherr is also wrong. Norton, the former Interior secretary and Colorado attorney general, presumably already knows that Metro's graduation, at which she will speak, is the students' day, not hers. Unless she has lost her senses, she won't politicize it - exploiting the occasion, say, to issue an apologia for the Bush policies.

The more pertinent question raised by Atherr's e-mail is this: Will others politicize the appearance of a woman whose career embodies the sort of achievement in a male-dominated profession, namely politics, that college activists usually claim to admire?

Why didn't Altherr complain last year when Sen. Ken Salazar was the commencement speaker?

"I should have objected," he conceded to me Thursday, adding by way of partial explanation that he is "usually headed out of town for research and an academic conference" at this time of year. And he was at pains to emphasize that he had no objection to a conservative such as Norton speaking on campus in another capacity, or even speaking to his class.

Fair enough. But perhaps he will forgive the suspicion that politics - his, that is - played some role in his decision to make an issue of Norton's appearance.

Although Altherr was not eager to characterize his personal politics, possible clues are not difficult to unearth. Consider the minutes of the Metro faculty senate from April 7, 2004, when members discussed whether to define the role of Level II General Studies courses as enabling students "to understand the values and institutions of Western Civilization and also to investigate and critique the interaction of Western Civilization with the rest of the world. Students should recognize Western Civilization's legacy of individual rights, political and economic freedom, scientific inquiry, technological innovation, and artistic and literary achievements."

This proposal drew a strong protest from Altherr, who, according to the minutes, described the reference to Western civilization as a "step backwards" and "very offensive." Indeed, the only person who seemed more upset was Rebecca Ferrell of the biology department, who argued - not even David Horowitz could make this up - that requiring students to recognize the legacy of Western civilization "seems something like asking the prisoner to pay for the bullet that will be used in their execution."

It is hard to imagine a less strident political figure than Gale Norton. She should be permitted to speak without protest - even if her personal story does reflect well on Western civilization.

Vincent Carroll, editor of the editorial pages, writes On Point several times a week. Reach him at carrollv@RockyMountainNews.com.