This year’s rain-soaked commencement had a dash of royal glamour with King Abdullah and Queen Rania of Jordan in attendance – but ultimately turned into a noisy, but constructive, forum to talk about immigration, about the experience of undocumented students, about civil dialogue and debate and about the tensions between personal convictions and compromises that are inherent in public service.
On May 6, Georgetown University announced the speakers and honorary degree recipients for the 2016 Commencement ceremonies, including Jeh Johnson, Secretary of Homeland Security, for the SFS undergraduate ceremony.
“We invited Secretary Jeh Johnson of the Department of Homeland Security to speak at graduation because we felt he was showing leadership and integrity in public service on some of the toughest issues of the day — security, immigration, privacy, and disaster response. Undocumented students came forward to protest the honor and they made their case with passion and conviction,” Dean Joel Hellman said.
However, a petition signed by alumni, students and their families requested Georgetown to rescind the invitation to protest immigration policies and actions of the Department of Homeland Security.
Representatives of the Georgetown student club UndocuHoyas met with Provost Groves and Dean Hellman to express their concerns. “We should not be forced to receive our diplomas from an individual who is directly responsible for separating our families,” wrote the students in a statement. “Therefore, we strongly implore the university to rescind Secretary Johnson’s speaking invitation and take meaningful action to ensure that graduation is an inclusive and safe experience for all members of the Georgetown community.”
Concurrently, another group formed a counter petition calling for protection of free speech. This sparked a largely thoughtful, but sometimes uncivil and hurtful social media dialogue between students that further exacerbated the concerns of undocumented students.
In response to student concerns, the SFS Dean’s Office organized a visit by Secretary Johnson to the campus on May 16 to allow for conversation between Johnson and members of UndocuHoyas about their concerns, as well as with SFS student leaders.
“I would say that it was an informative meeting,” Johnson told The Hoya. “I told them that their voices are voices that deserve to be heard, that they inform policy and that I admire and respect the passion of their commitment.”
Dean Hellman saw the visit as a way to encourage engagement on a set of very complex and politically charged issues. “We will hopefully create a broader space for dialogue,” he said to The Georgetown Voice. “We are hoping to do that through students expressing their views before the ceremony to Sec. Johnson, so he’s able to hear the kinds of issues that they may want to raise, that are impacting the way they see the whole event.”
Secretary Johnson returned to the Hilltop for the Commencement address on May 21. Shortly after he began his remarks, protesters from UnitedWeDream disrupted his speech from the audience. SFS graduating seniors responded with a chant of “Hoya! Saxa!” until the protestors were escorted out of McDonough Auditorium.
“To those of you who are our international guests: welcome to our wonderful, and sometimes noisy, democracy,” Secretary Johnson said, as he resumed his speech. He described how his plans for his speech had changed after his visit with students a few days prior.
“After meeting with students on Monday, I decided to scrap the prior approach and address the immediate issue, that you saw, head-on. In the process, I believe I can deliver on the request to talk about the manner in which today’s government leaders grapple with difficult issues of national and homeland security,” Johnson said.
He commended the activism of some of the Georgetown Community about his visit. “First: to the students and alumni who object to me and our immigration policy, I admire your energy and passion,” Johnson said. “I hope you continue in your cause. Your level of activism and commitment is something I encourage in my own college-age children. In this free country, you have an important role, your views matter, and they contribute to the policymaking of our government. And, do not become disheartened if others oppose you.”
Policy making is complex and messy, according to Johnson, but efforts persist by government leaders to “do the right thing.”
“Doing the right thing can be complicated,” he said. “In government decision-making and policy-making, doing the right thing is rarely simple, pure or perfect. It’s rarely one-dimensional, or even two-dimensional. It’s often multi-dimensional. And one of those dimensions can be your personal convictions.”
Conflict between personal beliefs and government policy may inspire government officials to consider resignation from their office, but that path has consequences as well, according to Johnson. “When an action we are called to take offends our personal convictions, we can resign,” he said. “But, abandoning your responsibility only passes the burden to someone else – and possibly someone less thoughtful, less sensitive and more callous. Resignation relieves you of your personal dilemma, makes a forceful statement, but may not be good for the country or a lot of people who depend on you as their leader. This is a burden you must be prepared to accept in public service and as a leader.”
In spite of the “burden and responsibility” of public service, Johnson called his time in government “the most consequential and gratifying part of my professional life.” He urged graduates to remember the desire to give back that inspired their choice of the School of Foreign Service.
“My hope for all of you, as [you] proceed today on your journey from here, is that you never lose the spark that motivated you to come to this school in the first place.”
Secretary Johnson acknowledged that some students had stated that they did not wish to shake his hand, calling it their “right and privilege” but told students, “I am willing to extend my hand to every one of you.” At the end of his speech, he received a standing ovation from SFS graduates and their families.
“I was pleased that we found a way forward that ensured a hearing for the concerns of the undocumented students and an honest discussion of the challenges of public service. The student press gave the whole process fair and balanced coverage. And the students put their SFS education to good use in advocating their positions,” Dean Hellman said.
For more coverage of Commencement and the controversy surrounding Secretary Johnson’s invitation, see the stories below.