Commencement speeches are supposed to be uplifting but for many, one at the University of Saint Thomas was a real downer.
“I thought it was pretty offensive,” commented graduate Marie Lynch.
”I thought it was extremely disrespectful,” graduate Jonathan Maurer added.
Both Lynch and Maurer rose from their seats in their caps and gowns and turned their backs to speaker Benjamin Kessler. The 21-year-old former football star and Academic All-American spoke briefly as the elected “Tommie of the Year”, burning a lot of his fellow graduates ears in the process. His theme was selfishness, as he perceived it in his own class.
“We must stop making selfish choices," Kessler spoke above the wind as unrest grew in the rows of mortar boards. “I would point to the common practice of birth control.”
Many graduates and spectators booed. Some called Kessler names including “crazy” and some obscene.
”Partly through, when he started talking about birth control and everything,” Graduate Hannah Hoes recalled, “I got up and left because it wasn't how I wanted to remember St. Thomas as my last memory.”
Hoes was not alone in leaving. Several used their feet in protest when Kessler stepped into the ongoing controversy over the University allowing unmarried staff members to room together on trips.
”Is traveling and staying with an unmarried partner,” Kessler asked, “best for students, faculty, staff and the rest of the St. Thomas community? No. It's selfish.”
Maurer took offense to the remarks in general. “He was supposedly representing our school and representing our class and representing me and I didn't appreciate the way that I was represented in that situation.”
Lynch agreed with Maurer. ”And finally when he compared these kinds of views to Jesus and Mother Teresa and even Gandhi was inappropriate.”
University President Fr. Dennis Dease issued a statement regretting the impact of Kessler’s remarks and including an apology from Kessler himself reading in part, “Instead of providing hope to all, I offended some by my words and by my decision to speak those words at commencement. I sincerely apologize to each person I offended.”
Tuesday, University Vice President Doug Hennes said not everyone at graduation was upset, "I spoke with a lot of parents and students in the last two days and many of them agree personally with the opinions he was expressing but they didn't feel that was the appropriate setting.”
By Allen Costantini, KARE 11 News
(Copyright 2006 by KARE. All Rights Reserved.)