Goddard College on cop-killer commencement: ‘We’re standing by our principles’


HIGHER LEARNING?: Administrators and faculty at Vermont’s Goddard College are defending a decision to have cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal deliver the commencement speech at Sunday’s graduation.

By Bruce Parker | Vermont Watchdog

PLAINFIELD, Vt. — Administrators and faculty at Goddard College on Wednesday said they are acting on principle in letting convicted cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal deliver the commencement address at Sunday’s graduation.

“We’re standing by our principles of honoring our students’ wishes and the academic integrity of their commencement experience and educational experience in letting them choose Mumia as their speaker,” Samantha Kolber, outreach coordinator at Goddard College, told Watchdog.org.

Abu-Jamal shot and killed 25-year-old Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner at point blank range in 1981. He is serving a life sentence at the Mahanoy State Correctional Institution in Pennsylvania.

At the wishes of Goddard’s fall 2014 graduating class, Abu-Jamal will deliver a recorded commencement speech made from prison, where he is an Internet radio commentator for Prison Radio.

“We’re not condoning violence or condoning his crime, but we’re upholding our students’ right to choose who they listen to to teach them any life lessons,” Kolber said.

“And Mumia is a graduate of Goddard College, so he has a direct link to them in having the same educational experience as they may have had.”

While Goddard Interim President Robert P. Kenny declined our request for an interview, present and former faculty offered support for the college’s decision and Abu-Jamal.

“This was the decision of a body of students and we support them. Think what they are learning already about our country at this moment,” said Darrah Cloud, a creative writing professor at the college.

GRIEF: Maureen Faulkner, widow of Philielphia Police Officer Daniel Faulkner, is seen at a 2011 news conference.

“If we are collectively afraid to hear from this man, should we not challenge ourselves to face him and know who he is for ourselves? Understand him rather than engage in assumptions and easy outrage, which are in no way educational?”

Others showed similar sympathy for Abu-Jamal and did not mention slain officer Daniel Faulkner or his grief-stricken family.

“What’s important about Mumia Abu-Jamal being allowed to give a commencement speech isn’t about whether or not he is guilty of the crime for which he has been imprisoned for life, but who he is as a result of that incarceration. He has important things to say. He’s been in solitary confinement, which is a form of torture,” said Michael Klein, also a creative writing professor with connections to the college.

Goddard is a nontraditional learning institution. In keeping with the vision of founder Royce Pitkin, a disciple of progressive educator John Dewey, the college’s 600-plus students, mostly adults, design their own BFA and MFA programs in creative writing, sustainability, art, theater and other subjects.

“We have no tests, we have no grades, we have no classes,” Kolber said.

Although students at Goddard design their own curriculum, they receive significant oversight from faculty advisers. This also was true of the decision to select Abu-Jamal as commencement speaker.

Asked which Goddard administrator oversaw the students’ selection process, Kolber replied, “The program director is Phyllis Brown. So she would have final approval or oversight.”

Kolber said she discussed the controversial choice with Brown.

“They knew ahead of time. I spoke through the program director to say, ‘If we release this news that they’ve chosen him as a speaker, there will be controversy.’ They said they understood that.”

Worries among administrators ultimately were suppressed by Goddard’s progressive philosophy.

“We don’t tell them what to study, and we don’t tell them how to have their commencement ceremony,” Kolber added.

That explanation didn’t sit well with Police Chief Anthony Facos, leader of the Montpelier Police Department.

AP file photo

IN THE LINE OF DUTY: Philadelphia Police Officer Daniel Faulkner was killed threee decades ago by Mumia Abu-Jamal.

“Quite frankly, we’re disgusted by it. … I don’t understand the wisdom or the thought process behind Goddard’s decision to carry on with it,” he said.

Facos has a personal connection to the story. The chief attended a summer training session where Faulkner’s widow spoke to law enforcement about her husband.

“It was murder. It was cold blood. Those are the facts of the investigation, the facts of the trials.”

On Sunday, 20 students will gather at Goddard College’s Haybarn Theatre and listen to Abu-Jamal’s speech. In keeping with Goddard tradition that each student is a valedictorian, students will deliver their own speeches, sharing what they’ve learned from their studies.

Goddard refused to let Watchdog interview students ahead of the event.

Asked if he would be paying attention to what is said at Sunday’s graduation, Facos replied, “It’s not even worth it.”

“My response, I’m sure, is quite normal and expected for anybody in law enforcement. Or, frankly, for anyone who respects the rule of law in society,” Facos said.

Contact Bruce Parker at bparker@watchdog.org