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February 08, 2017

Penn newspaper laments choice of liberal Cory Booker as commencement speaker

The editorial board of the student-run newspaper at the University of Pennsylvania challenged the school to end its streak of liberal-minded commencement speakers and allow students to hear differing worldviews.

On Wednesday, the Daily Pennsylvanian published an editorial in response to the school administration's selection of U.S. Sen. Cory Booker to address the 2017 graduating class in May. While admitting the New Jersey Democrat is qualified to handle the gig, the newspaper warns that the school is ignoring its instructional function to challenge students' intellectual beliefs.

According to the newspaper, the last time "anyone with even moderately conservative views addressed Penn graduates at commencement" was 2010 when then-U.S. Ambassador to China and 1987 graduate Jon Huntsman took the podium.

Since then, the honor has been directed to public figures whose views skew liberal. Among those chosen were composer, lyricist and performer Lin-Manuel Miranda in 2016, singer and 1999 graduate John Legend in 2014 and then-Vice President Joe Biden in 2013.

In the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, Booker has emerged as a potential challenger to President (and 1968 Penn graduate) Donald Trump in four years. Booker has been an outspoken defender of protesters marching against Trump's policies and, more recently, a critic of Sen. Jeff Sessions' (R-Alabama) nomination for attorney general.

Selecting Booker to speak just after Trump assumed the Oval Office attracted attention to Penn's recent preference for liberal speakers at commencement. The editorial board is concerned that the school risks alienating conservative students.

Penn president Amy Gutmann, whom the newspaper praised for remaining neutral during the campaign, has used her platform to criticize Trump since he took the presidential oath. Last week, she cited the university's values when calling Trump's executive order imposing travel restrictions on immigrants seeking entry to the country "inimical."

The newspaper is concerned that making political statements undermine the school's ability to serve all students:

"While it’s no shock that Penn students remain solidly liberal and averse to Trump’s policies, the University as an institution does not advertise itself that way. Penn properly and routinely declines to weigh in on partisan political questions — including elections — repeating that Penn cannot and does not take such stances."

While making the selection announcement of the rising leader in the Democratic Party, Penn administrators attempted to highlight Booker's ability to work with Republican colleagues.

"During his four-year service in the Senate, he has repeatedly reached across the aisle and been a leader on issues such as criminal justice reform, providing support and resources for local law enforcement, comprehensive immigration reform, and fostering economic opportunity," Gutmann said.

The statement failed to allay fears that an echo chamber was developing on campus as the school also announced the same week that Biden will be joining the institution as the leader of the new diplomacy center.

However, the newspaper did not suggest that Booker's invitation be rescinded, but it expressed a hope that the school strives to further broaden students' horizons.

"In the future, however, we would like to see a roster of commencement speakers who align more closely with the high ideals of education and the unending struggle against our own self-polarization," the editorial concluded.