Reacting to Calderón

March 1, 2011, 3:02 a.m.

Students, administrators, Bay Area activists divided over selection of Mexican president as 2011 commencement speaker

The 31st president of the United States, Supreme Court justices, a secretary of state, the governor of New York, the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, U.S. senators, the editor of The New York Times and two secretary-generals of the United Nations have all, at one point, stood at the same podium.

It has become an increasingly prestigious honor to address the graduating class of Stanford University at commencement every June. In the past decade alone, Secretary-General of the United Nations Kofi Annan, Condoleezza Rice, Sandra Day O’Connor, Steve Jobs, Tom Brokaw, Oprah Winfrey and Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Anthony Kennedy have delivered commencement speeches to graduating classes.

On Jan. 14, the senior class presidents announced that Felipe Calderón, the incumbent president of Mexico, would join the group of notables as Stanford’s 2011 Commencement speaker.The selection, per usual, has not come without controversy. While many seniors are appreciative of the opportunity to hear words of wisdom from such a prominent political figure, others object to Calderón’s invitation based on how he has conducted policy in his country, particularly his deployment of troops to drug-trafficking regions in Mexico.

In her article “Mexican President’s Visit to Stanford Meets with Objection” published on Feb. 9, 2011, by The Bay Citizen, journalist Elena Shore described how Calderon’s selection has prompted a reaction from within the Bay Area.

According to Shore, an editorial written by Maria Mejía published by El Mensajero, a Bay Area Spanish-language newspaper, described Stanford’s selection as the “wrong choice.” Mejía wrote that the purpose of a commencement is to inspire students, and that if she were a student, she wouldn’t feel inspired by Calderón.

“I don’t admire his war against drug trafficking,” Mejía said. “Maybe his motives are legitimate and his intentions are good. But the reality is that it has left a terrible trail of dead bodies. I can’t believe that more than 30,000 dead during his administration due to violence stemming from narcotrafficking is something that could inspire me.”

According to Shore, Miguel Robles, director of the Latin American Alliance for the Rights of Immigrants (ALIADI) told El Mensajero that the Stanford community as well as other California universities should protest a speaker who has “generated so much social disorder, so much death.”

It is estimated that the war on drugs is responsible for the deaths of more than 34,000 people since 2006 as well as 15,000 people in 2010 alone, according to Shore, citing El Mensajero.

Every year, the four senior class presidents make a recommendation to President Hennessy for the Commencement speaker on behalf of the senior class. This year’s presidents Dante DiCicco, Mona Hadidi, Molly Spaeth and Pamon Forouhor chose to poll the senior class, asking them to suggest candidates, Spaeth said.

Every year, the class presidents typically submit an unranked list of three to five candidates to President Hennessy, who selects the speaker after discussions with the senior class presidents, faculty, other administrators and trustees, according to Jeff Wachtel, senior assistant to the president and secretary of the Board of Trustees.

The feasibility of getting a potential candidate to accept an invitation is a major consideration.

“Believe it or not, even though it’s Stanford, it’s not the kind of thing people do readily,” Wachtel said. “People aren’t lining up to be Commencement speakers because they get so many invitations to do this.”

In addition to being selected based on one’s speaking abilities, candidates are also considered based on their connection to the University. One factor in selecting Calderón, Wachtel said, is the fact that he is a family friend of a member of the class of 2011.

“The senior class presidents were particularly excited about Calderón being the speaker,” Wachtel said. “That was very persuasive for us.”

DiCicco said that the senior class presidents viewed Calderón’s selection as a timely one.

“Right now, we believe, is a very significant time in relations between the U.S. and Mexico, particularly California and Mexico,” DiCicco said. “We feel that Calderón, drawing from his experiences in public policy, can give a very powerful speech to us as an outgoing world leader to future world leaders.”

Many student reactions were positive toward, or at least curious about, the selection. Cristal Garcia ’11, a student administrative assistant for the Stanford Center for Latin American Studies, wrote in an e-mail to The Daily that Calderón’s high profile and high-pressure position will make for a more interesting speech.

“To take on such an influential role [requires] more than just books,” Garcia said. “And…someone who faces these kinds of challenges is [someone] I would like to listen to.”

Wachtel noted that some opposition to Calderón’s invitation is not unexpected.

“There’s always some negative reaction to every speaker we select,” Wachtel said. “The amount of reaction varies. Even someone as popular as Oprah had some negative reaction.”

Wachtel said the biggest problem the University has had with a Commencement speaker during the past decade has not been the result of direct objection to the speaker himself, citing the invitation of the president of Peru, Alejandro Toledo, to speak at Stanford’s 2003 commencement as an example.

Toledo, who holds three degrees from Stanford, had an all-time low approval rating at the time, and was in a battle with the Peruvian Congress. When the Peruvian congress told him he would be unable to use the presidential plane to fly to Palo Alto, Toledo insisted he would make it to Stanford even if he had to fly commercially and ultimately made it to campus for the speech, Wachtel said.

In 2000, then-U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan was selected as the Commencement speaker. Some students protested to draw public attention to global causes and crises, but not specifically to protest Annan’s selection.

“People are welcome to protest and express their opinion,” Wachtel said. However, “we would not allow his [Annan’s] speech to be interrupted…we just want to be respectful.”

Hadidi noted that Calderón will try to relate to the graduating class regardless of its politics.

“At the end of the day, he’s not coming here to give us a policy speech,” Hadidi said. “He’s here to give us a Commencement speech, and therefore we’re hoping he will provide inspiration to our class.

“It’s an incredible honor to have a current, sitting foreign head of state come and speak to our class,” DiCicco said, noting how the fact that Calderón is a family friend of a senior “adds another layer of depth to the Commencement speech.

Calderón is expected to be on campus from June 10 to 12.

“We’re very excited,” Forouhor said. “I don’t think we could be happier with our selection at this point. We’re really looking forward to it.”

Billy Gallagher is a senior staff writer at The Stanford Daily. He has previously worked at The Daily as editor in chief, a managing editor of news, news desk editor, sports desk editor and staff development editor. He is a junior from Villanova, PA majoring in Economics. He is also a writer for TechCrunch.

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