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Michelle Obama Pledge Ruffles Feathers at GW University

5 years ago
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This year, Christmas came early for George Washington University's politically active campus.

Commencement speaker announcements always kick up firestorms of controversy, as some students find their invited speaker to be too liberal or too conservative, too radical or too reactionary -- or just too darn disagreeable -- for the student body to handle. Most university students are fairly seasoned with the resulting political drama, and dismiss it as just political posturing -- yet, they don't expect to hear the calls of controversy and bias until March, or perhaps April.

So when GWU's school paper, the GW Hatchet, reported on Sept. 14 that first lady Michelle Obama had issued a "day of service" challenge to GW students -- complete 100,000 community service hours, and in return, she will be the university's 2010 commencement speaker -- the news took campus by storm.

First, the Hatchet praised the challenge in a staff editorial titled "Answering Michelle's Call," asking the Office of Community Service (OCS) to "raise the profile of this challenge" and "bombard students with [community service] opportunities and reminders." In addition, the paper announced it would publish a monthly "Michelle Obameter" to measure the number of hours reached. In short order, fliers appeared around campus with pictures of Obama, asking "Have You Heard?" and urging students to visit the OCS Web site to start logging their hours.

The challenge, of course, seemed like a non-controversial proposition: encourage students to work in their community to bring the current first lady to GW's commencement ceremony.

But, as the tradition heralds, calls of bias and politics quickly bubbled to the surface, and the first punches flew.

Travis Korson, the president of the Young America's Foundation (YAF), a loud, right-wing activist group on campus, found issue with the challenge, and quickly posted its reaction to the news on its blog.

"I believe I speak for all conservatives at GWU when I say that I have a request: decline Michelle Obama's offer to speak at commencement, or please don't count our service hours toward the 100,000-hour goal she has established . . ." Korson declared. "As an active member in the community, a conservative and a patriot, please don't push your agenda upon us conservatives by politicizing community service and forcing Michelle Obama upon my campus."

This was quickly countered by an op-ed in the GW Hatchet by a disillusioned Republican, who argued that, "YAF's opposition to Mrs. Obama is another example of the right trying to inject partisan politics into an inherently apolitical situation."

The commencement wars have started early.

But this battle is not, and probably won't be, like many controversies on college campuses in the past. There's a new feature in GW's controversy. If you ask some of the campus's conservatives about it, they might tell you GW is politicizing community service, and it's wrong.

YAF charges the administration with promoting "false volunteerism":
"What makes Mrs. Obama's pledge different from President Reagan's call to service, or the initiatives of Barbara and Laura Bush, is its direct connection to politics. 'Organizing for America,' which emerged from the remnants of President Obama's presidential campaign, has been used as a vehicle to call for community service in support of his health care initiatives. Now community service is linked to a goal of bringing yet another liberal commencement speaker to campus."
Their frustrations may be valid, and the debate YAF is asking for is one that may need to be held. Regardless if it's wrong or right, the Obama Administration has been using Organizing for America to encourage community service within a pro-health care reform framework. June 27's "National Health Care Day of Service," for example, encouraged supporters to join in on local community health projects and talk up the need for health care reform, Obama-style.

YAF also calls out GW for its slant toward liberal commencement speakers. "Another issue has to do with a lack of intellectual diversity in commencement speakers overall," Korson told Politics Daily. Former first lady Barbara Bush spoke in 2006, but before that, "one has to go back to the 1990s to find speakers with conservative views."

"Not once during the eight years George W. Bush was in office did one official from his administration speak to GW students," Korson added. "But all the commencements so far under President Obama have featured speakers from his administration, first Rahm Emmanuel (2008) and now Michelle Obama."

Not all students agree though, including the university's chapter of College Republicans. Brandon Hines, chairman of the organization, disagrees with YAF's approach. "It is difficult to see by any objective measure how the first lady would not be an acceptable commencement speaker," Hines told the Hatchet. "The College Republicans do not support any such initiative to undermine the community service efforts of the GW community as a whole."

Student Association President Julie Bindelglass doesn't understand the controversy, either.

"Michelle Obama has not issued this challenge to any other university and it is an honor that she chose to recognize our school with this unique opportunity," Bindelglass told Politics Daily. "Since we are located at the heart of politics and policy, we have so many opportunities right outside our doorstep to go into the local community and contribute."

"Commencement is a non-partisan event that celebrates a wonderful academic achievement," she added, "and having the first lady as our commencement speaker would be an incredible experience."
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