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(Campus Executive News Reporting Service, May 25, 2014) McAdams Mikelas, president of the University of Birch Bay, announced on Saturday that Steve Martin will play his banjo, along with his group the Steep Canyon Raiders, at the UBB’s graduation ceremony on June 28. The speaker originally scheduled to make the commencement speech, Alexandr Alexandrovich Sasha, called President Mikelas early Saturday morning to cancel his planned speech because of “urgent business scheduled in late June” for the Russian Duma (parliament). Mr. Sasha is serving his second term as a member of the Duma.
In lieu of a graduation speech, Mr. Martin and his group have agreed to play music without lyrics and to avoid, to the extent possible, any controversial comments between the songs. The group recently released a new album, “Live” (see http://www.stevemartin.com/).
The invitation to Mr. Sasha had stirred controversy among some UBB students and faculty members. Mr. Sasha, who owns coal mines near Mezhurechensk, Russia, is a billionaire and a close friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin. He has been awarded numerous prizes in Russia for his humanitarian work and his advocacy for higher education.
Students objected to his role in the coal industry, by which he is, they say, contributing to global warming. Protests against his appearance escalated when, on Thursday night, Mr. Sasha was interviewed by Sean Hannity, telling him that he thought Russian laws protecting society, especially children, from gay people were “necessary.” He added, “We are a traditional, not a decadent, culture. We protect our children and women."
On Friday, UBB students set up a large protest camp in the vast Karl Liebknecht Square. Several students wearing balaclavas to cover their faces surrounded the UBB’s administration building. One of them, Helen Haleworthy, a junior majoring in Latin, told reporters that if Mr. Sasha is not replaced as commencement speaker by Monday, students would “shut this dump down.”
Saturday morning, Pauli Manaforte’, an American who is one of Mr. Sasha’s close political advisers, issued a press release on his behalf saying that urgent business and a desire to spend more time with his family had forced Mr. Sasha to cancel his role in UBB’s commencement. Neither Mr. Sasha or Mr. Manaforte’, could be reached for comment.
UBB President Mikelas said that he was disappointed in Mr. Sasha’s decision: “I understand that it is a busy time in Russia, what with the fascists taking over Ukraine and all.” He thanked Mr. Sasha for his past generosity to UBB and hoped that it would continue. He said, ‘We will send this busy man his honorary UBB doctorate and a membership in the university’s alumni association by Federal Express.”
UBB is one of many colleges, including Smith College, Brandeis College, Haverford College, and Rutgers University, to change commencement speakers due to student and faculty protests. The use of wordless music, or perhaps the use of mimes, in lieu of commencement speeches is seen as a likely trend among American universities. Alternatively, some observers suggest that universities and colleges should be more careful in selecting the people on whom they bestow honor and prestige through invitations to give commencement addresses and award honorary degrees.