It’ll be another four weeks before N.J. State Gov. Chris Christie addresses the Rowan undergraduate Class of 2014. If this past week is any indication of what’s to come, debate may not die down before Christie takes that podium.
Following the April 9 announcement that Christie will be this year’s commencement keynote speaker and will receive an honorary degree from the university — as well as recent news that the ceremony will be moved from the Bunce Hall green to Richard Wackar Stadium — various organizations and individuals have worked to establish positions both in favor and against the recently scrutinized politician.
Rowan Class of 2005 alumnus and current history teacher at Monmouth Regional High School Joseph Nappi has gained the backing of over 670 supporters on change.org with a petition that protests both Christie’s honorary degree and presence at the ceremony.
“Rowan is historically a teachers’ college,” the petition reads. “No governor in NJ history has been more adversarial to teachers and public education than Chris Christie. His policies have damaged public education and the teaching profession as a whole. He is not deserving of this honor from Rowan.”
Nappi also said he sent a letter to the Office of the President that criticizes Rowan’s support of Christie and his history of changes to the state’s education system.
“I heard back from [Vice President of University Relations] Joe Cardona,” Nappi said. “Unfortunately he did not answer to my criticisms about Christie’s record.”
Nappi said a lot of his frustration with the decision stemmed from the initial press release from the President’s Office that praised Christie’s work.
“I hate to speak for the other petitioners, but I was personally upset with the initial press release and the decision to give him an honorary degree,” Nappi said. “It’s inappropriate for a school known as a teaching college, and if you ask anyone in education service, they have a different story to tell you about him.”
SGA presented with resolution to demote Christie from keynote title
The decision has also drawn action on campus, as a denied resolution advocating the demotion of Christie from commencement speaker to honorary guest was presented at the Student Government Association’s April 14 meeting. It also asked the Office of the President to strongly consider a new speaker.
The resolution was met with a divided senate — both sides argued about Christie’s alleged involvement in recent scandals, his policies toward LGBTQ and women’s rights, cuts to education and his involvement in the expansion of Rowan.
The resolution finished with 28 votes in favor of the resolution, 37 votes opposing, and 26 votes abstained.
Executive Vice President for Administration and Strategic Advancement Toby Oxholm was present at the meeting to witness the senate’s debate and offered his support for senate efforts.
“I want you to know that [administration] saw [this resolution] coming,” Oxholm said. “Though this resolution did not pass, there are other ways of getting your issues and concerns before the president and the [board of trustees].”
Oxholm offered the suggestion that students should speak before the board of trustees with their concerns. However, according to alternate student board of trustees representatives Juilo Interiano’s previous statements, the BOT had no decision making authority in the measure.
“Solely the president has the right to choose the speaker and when it comes down to it, it’s a matter of the president telling the board who he has selected,” Oxholm said.
The President’s Office was contacted for a comment on April 15 regarding the type of information used to choose a commencement speaker, but the office has not responded.
Nick McLeod, senior biological sciences major, proposed the resolution to the SGA senate.
“The resolution was something I had asked several seniors about before writing and had then passed on to Julio [Interiano], and Surbhi [Pathak]” McLeod said. “I wanted to see how the senate felt, and it was met with a great divide and it’s something we will be working on.”
In regards to the senate’s divided stance on the issue, SGA President Surbhi Pathak said that there isn’t enough of a consensus in public opinion to choose a stance on the resolution.
“Since there are no stats or polls on [opinions of commencement], I cannot speak for student government as a whole, or on behalf of my executive committee,” Pathak said. “Am I happy that Chris Christie is speaking at Commencement, individually, no but in the long run and what commencement is for is for the students and I’m pretty sure, pretty positive that he won’t be using that platform as a political platform.”
As to what is next in regards to future commencements, Interiano mentioned that students used to have a voice.
“In the past, students were able to contribute on who the commencement speaker was, and there was a committee,” Interiano said. “I’m going to talk with the president’s assistant and let her know that students now want to be part of the selection process.”
With the help of Interiano, McLeod has another draft of the resolution in the works.
Online readers react to decision
Including the petition’s growing amount of signatures and input from the Rowan community, statewide publications have also seen a burst of commentary from readers on the appointment of Christie as keynote speaker.
South Jersey Times managing editor Jessica Beym said that, as of April 14, the publication’s three online posts reacting to the announcement had already accumulated over 10,000 total views — and hundreds of comments invested in the debate.
“Christie is a pretty polarizing subject, so we can see it creating a lot of chatter,” Beym said.
Rowan Democrat, Republican Clubs find middle ground
Despite the past week’s reigning focus on Christie’s political involvement and the implications it may have on Rowan’s status, the two presidents of the Rowan organizations most invested in Christie’s work — the Democrat and Republican clubs — find little wrong with this year’s planned keynote speaker.
“This should be a moment of triumph for Rowan University and the Class of 2014,” Republican Club President Steven Berner said via email. “Governor Christie’s actions have led to stronger Rowan degrees and a growing school. While a dissenting opinion is healthy and to be expected in such a situation, we feel that the current controversy is widely over exaggerated and detracts from the excitement that the Class of 2014 should be feeling for their graduation.”
Democrat Club Acting President Kyle Darby, while not entirely in favor of the ongoing investigations into Christie’s involvement with the “Bridgegate” scandal, thinks anyone planning to protest the graduation is “childish.”
“His investigation and suspect behavior have no effect on our university,” Darby said. “Technically, because of his past work and involvement in higher education funding, he is a man of merit. If it ever was an issue, then President Houshmand would have never invited him.”