May 1, 2014, 6:35 p.m.
I am honored that you have chosen me today to give a fake commencement speech about your school’s botched search for a commencement speaker.
We can learn so many lessons from the way college officials mishandled the job:
They invited distinguished PCC alumnus Dustin Lance Black, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of “Milk,” to be your speaker.
They disinvited him over a sex tape but forgot to tell him.
They replaced him with a public health doctor/Christian fundamentalist preacher who believes children’s cartoons are satanic and once boasted of refusing to treat a prisoner who had a pentagram tattoo.
After many of you objected to his anti-gay views, they claimed the doctor had a scheduling conflict.
They apologized to Black.
Then they reinvited him to speak.
As you close this chapter of your lives and begin to write the next one, always remember that if you do something that embarrasses you, your institution or a Hollywood heavyweight, you should lie about it, blame someone else, pretend it was all a misunderstanding or call your lawyer.
And by all means, never try to explain it in anything approaching plain English. Rather, waterboard the language until the words have lost their will to live. Then declare it’s time to move on.
Allow me to explain.
In March, your commencement speaker committee came up with a list of eight potential graduation speakers. People with connections to each luminary were asked to reach out. Student Trustee Simon Fraser, who had met Black at a community college conference where Black received an award, was asked to contact him.
“What an honor!” Black’s assistant Neville Kiser replied moments after the invitation landed. Black, who graduated from PCC in 1994, accepted six days later. He was the only luminary who did.
College President Mark Rocha, Deputy Supt. Robert Bell, and board of trustees president Anthony Fellow soon discovered that Black had a scandal in his past.
They were fuzzy on the details, but that didn’t matter. In 2009, after Black became famous, someone stole 3-year-old images from an ex-boyfriend’s computer and peddled them to websites. Black won a $100,000 judgment.
They didn’t care that Black was the victim. Nor that the incident has faded from public memory. Nor that last year, Black, who is also a playwright, director and producer, was named a distinguished alumnus by UCLA‘s School of Theater, Film and Television, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1996.
What they cared about was that PCC had already been dragged through two sex scandals in the past year. Black, Bell told trustees, was shown in the video having “unprotected sex.” The school could not risk tarnishing its reputation further, even if the risk was imaginary.
So it set about tarnishing its reputation for real, and mangling the language along the way.
“None of the speakers on the list were able to confirm for Commencement, and the one who could is a controversial figure,” Rocha told trustees by email in early April. Later, he would wrongly claim that Fraser had not been authorized to invite Black.
Rocha also told the board that he and Bell had selected a new commencement speaker, Pasadena Public Health Director Eric Walsh, a preventive health specialist and Seventh-day Adventist minister who preaches that evolution is bunk and those who teach it are “Satan’s ministers.” In 2006, Walsh said, “If God’s plan was followed, there would be no AIDS epidemic.”
Four weeks after Black accepted and nearly two weeks after Walsh replaced him, the college finally got around to letting Black know.
On April 14, Deputy Supt. Bell sent Black’s assistant an email that deserves a spot in the Mealy Mouth Hall of Fame: “I wish to inform you that Mr. Black will not need to rearrange his busy schedule to appear as commencement speaker.”
Black, who had already rearranged his busy schedule, did not take the news calmly.
“As PCC Administrators attempt to shame me, they are casting a shadow over all LGBT students at PCC,” a furious Black responded in an open letter published by the school newspaper. “They are sending the message that LGBT students are to be held to a different standard, that there is something inherently shameful about who we are and how we love, and that no matter what we accomplish in our lives, we will never be worthy of PCC’s praise.”
He implied he was contemplating legal action.
On April 21, the college apologized to Black for “an honest error” and said the board had unanimously approved Walsh as the new speaker.
But the board, according to trustee Ross Selvidge, had never voted on Walsh.
I asked the college to explain. Students, pay attention here because this locution may come in handy the next time you are caught in a lie: A spokeswoman told me the school would “stay within the statement without further comment.”
PCC’s LGBT activists began researching Walsh and listening to his online lectures. They were appalled by what student Renee Haserjian called his “sexism” and “homophobia.”
On Monday, the college announced that Walsh had withdrawn from commencement due to an “unforeseen scheduling conflict.” Walsh did not respond to my attempts to reach him.
On Tuesday, Black told the website Truthdig that his legal team was talking to PCC’s legal team.
On Wednesday evening, at its regular meeting, a chastened board expressed deep admiration for Black, apologized for “any actions that may have caused hurt,” and unanimously voted to re-invite him to speak at graduation May 9. Black had not responded as of Thursday afternoon.
Pasadena City Manager Michael J. Beck announced Thursday that Walsh had been placed on temporary paid administrative leave, pending an investigation into statements made “in his private capacity, and to assess the impact those statements may have on his ability to effectively lead the city’s public health department.”
Rocha, whose four-year tenure at PCC has been marred by student and faculty no-confidence votes, told me after the vote that, yes, he’s ready to move on.
“All I have control over is what we do moving forward, and I think we’ve done the right thing tonight,” he told me. “That was my clear recommendation.” (It was also his recommendation to disinvite Black in the first place. But why dwell on the past?)
“I’m angry,” Selvidge said. “This was an enormously embarrassing episode for the school.” Rocha, he said, “is really [messing] up our college.”
And so, PCC graduates, as you leave this hallowed campus and move on to your next adventure, what can I say?
Frankly, I’m speechless.