Cal State Long Beach’s annual convocation is typically an occasion for campus leaders to commemorate the beginning of a new school year and to celebrate academic achievements, but recent violence at a white supremacist rally in Virginia haunted this year’s ceremony.
Campus President Jane Close Conoley and other campus leaders took time at Friday’s event to denounce neo-Nazi ideologies, while also affirming their support for the First Amendment’s free speech protections. The convocation took place at Carpenter Performing Arts Center.
“I’m fully aware there are multiple interpretations of this event, but there is one clear and present danger that confronts our campus and most campuses across the nation,” she said after referring to the Virginia violence. “We must guard against any erosion of First Amendment rights, while at the same time, protecting our community, our people and our property. We must challenge each other to listen, debate with civility and reaffirm American values.”
Roughly 37,000 students — including 4,200 new freshmen — are expected on campus this fall. Classes begin Monday.
The Virginia violence took place earlier this month in Charlottesville, Virginia, where the University of Virginia is based. Heather Heyer, who was protesting against white nationalists there, died after a man rammed her and others with his vehicle.
The alleged assailant has been charged with murder and other crimes and was reportedly a fan of the Third Reich. The Associated Press reported that hundreds of white supremacists showed up at the Charlottesville rally to demonstrate against a city government decision to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
“We have witnessed and observed a new level of hatred that has shocked and stunned a watching world,” Cal State Long Beach Provost Brian Jersky said during his remarks. “I want to take this moment to condemn strongly what the neo-Nazis and white supremacists stand for. They disguise their hate, fear and divisiveness with misguided nationalist (viewpoints). Given the rich diversity of our campus, our sacred space has no room to accommodate this level of violence and discord.”
In her own remarks, Conoley expressed worry over “serious threats to freedom of speech from every point on the political spectrum” and the prospect of armed demonstrators doing violence on campus.
“We’ve already had the experience of losing one of our students in a terrorist attack, caught in the crossfire,” she said, referring to Nohemi Gonzalez’s death during the November 2015 Isis attacks in Paris. “Let’s not let that happen closer to home,” Conoley continued.
Cal State Long Beach did not witness any level of violence comparable to what happened in Charlottesville during its past academic year, although there was an occasion in February when propaganda posters bearing the name of white nationalist group Identity Europa were discovered, and subsequently taken down, from campus property. Anti-Semitic propaganda was again found on campus in March and in April.
And in a separate matter, former Carpenter Center director Michele Roberge left her job in September 2016 after claiming that Conoley would not allow the venue to host an anti-racism stage performance with the provocative title of “N*gger Wetb*ck Ch*nk.” (The title is not bowdlerized in its original.)
At the time, Conoley denied Roberge’s claim that she would not allow the show to be performed, but did say she declined to have campus instructors conduct lessons related to the performance’s take on racial and cultural issues.
The Charlottesville tragedy was not the sole subject under discussion during Friday morning’s event. Conoley and others also spoke of such issues as the challenges of securing public financing for higher education and efforts to increase four-year graduation rates.
The event also featured a screening of a recent graduate’s animated short, called “Ugat,” that takes its inspiration from Filipino culture.
Animation professor Aubry Mintz said the short helped animator Theresa Reyes secure an internship with Pixar.
“Theresa wanted to be here, but she’s at Pixar,” Mintz said.