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May 29, 2024

‘It’s on everybody’s mind’: Morehouse faculty and students raise concerns about Biden’s graduation speech

‘It’s on everybody’s mind’: Morehouse faculty and students raise concerns about Biden’s graduation speech

ATLANTA — Morehouse College’s leadership is set to hold a call on Thursday — where faculty will get the chance to speak — to address concerns over having President Joe Biden as the school’s commencement speaker next month.

“From our perspective, really having a sitting president come to Morehouse offers an incredible opportunity,” said Morehouse Provost Kendrick Brown, who, along with the president of the school, will be conducting the call this evening, adding: “This is something that is in line with Morehouse’s mission and also with this objective of being a place that allows for engagement of social justice issues and moral concerns.”

Commencement season is traditionally a time for presidents to engage with younger audiences and all the energy they bring. But this year, with pro-Palestinian protests — and protests against Biden’s support for Israel — dominating college campuses, these speeches are more fraught. The White House announced this week that Biden will be doing just two commencement addresses this year, at Morehouse and at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Morehouse professor Andrew Douglas said many students and faculty are “wrestling” with whether — or how — to protest next month’s commencement.

“I’ve spoken with several faculty members who say under no conditions are they going to sit on a stage with Joe Biden,” Douglas said, adding: “It’s on everybody’s mind.”

Douglas, a political science professor in his 13th year at Morehouse, is a member of the school’s faculty council, the 15-member body that wrote a letter to the school’s president last week expressing “disappointment” upon hearing rumors that Biden had been invited to speak.

After those concerns came out, Morehouse’s leadership decided to hold its call with faculty members, though officials have made clear Biden’s invitation will not be rescinded.

“This was a decision that should have included more members of the campus community — students and faculty,” Douglas said. “And if those conversations had happened, I’m not sure that the decision to move forward would have been made.”

He pointed to “very serious and widespread concerns” over the war in Gaza, arguing that “the Biden administration has had a hand in seven months of death and destruction in ways that we don’t condone or support.”

On Wednesday, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre responded to the backlash, telling reporters that commencements were meant to focus on the graduates and their families.

“It’s not the first time, obviously, that he’s given commencement speeches,” she said. “I understand this is a different moment in time that we’re in. But he always takes this moment as a special time to deliver a message, an encouraging message, a message that’s hopefully uplifting to the graduates and their families. And we’re going to continue to have these conversations that I’ve just mentioned, with the different communities about what’s happening right now. We get it. It’s painful.”

Calvin Bell, a senior at Morehouse who voted for Biden in 2020, has similar concerns. While he described Biden’s speech as a “distraction” from celebrating students during commencement, he also sees the visit as a chance to take student concerns over Gaza directly to the president.

“This is also an opportunity for students to make their voices heard during a time of increasing war and genocide in the Middle East,” Bell said. 

While Douglas acknowledged the call with leadership is “unlikely” to result in Biden’s speech being canceled, Douglas says the priority among faculty is to protect students’ rights to protest, noting that a protest at Morehouse — the nation’s only college dedicated to educating Black men — could bring a different risk than similar protests at other campuses across the country.

 “Our priority should be … to try and ensure that under no circumstances are the police brought to bear on our students,” Douglas said. 

“Our students do not have the same privileges that Ivy League students typically do, and confrontations with the police can turn deadly for our students,” he added.

“We have a legacy of being at the forefront of justice movements,” Brown said. “We certainly encourage our students, our faculty, our staff, to form strong opinions and to come together peacefully and engage in that. So the way I see this is, this is certainly an opportunity … for our community to engage with the president to express the range of views that exist on the present issues, certainly in Israel and Gaza.”

Politically, the speech holds several layers of significance for Biden. Morehouse is located just west of downtown Atlanta in battleground Georgia — a state Biden barely won in 2020. Some state Democrats have expressed concern about his ability to repeat that victory.

A speech at the lauded alma mater of Martin Luther King Jr. would also give the president a unique opportunity to appeal to young Black voters — a group where polls show his support is lagging.

But while commencement is still a month away — enough time for minds to change — Douglas said the early signs do not point to a warm welcome: “I have not had a conversation with a student who’s happy about this.”

Nnamdi Egwuonwu

Nnamdi Egwuonwu is a 2024 NBC News campaign embed.

Blayne Alexander

Blayne Alexander is an NBC News correspondent, based in Atlanta.

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