WHY WE DID IT: Interim President Robert Kenny, right, and H. Sharif Williams, who goes by the name “Herukhuti”, explain why Goddard College administrators secretly changed Sunday’s graduation.
By Bruce Parker | Vermont Watchdog
PLAINFIELD, Vt. — After a week of telling the media they were honoring students’ wishes in selecting cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal to speak at graduation, Goddard College administrators secretly rescheduled the event, closed it to the public, and called the cops.
Goddard stirred controversy last week after announcing that students of the school’s undergraduate program had selected convicted murderer Abu-Jamal to be their commencement speaker. Abu-Jamal is serving life in prison for the 1981 shooting of Philadelphia Police Officer Daniel Faulkner.
But on Sunday, administrators secretly moved the graduation to 1 p.m instead of 4 p.m., thus avoiding potential protests and the media.
Students were made aware of the switch Sunday morning. WCAX-TV, FOX 44, Times Argus and other local news outlets received no notice of the time change. However, state and local police had been informed.
“It was changed for security and safety reasons. … Our conclusion was this is something we had to do,” Goddard interim President Robert Kenny said at a post-event news conference.
Kenny said harsh criticism of the college’s decision led administrators to privately reschedule the event.
“We in the room decided to keep it quiet. It was so quiet that our board members didn’t realize we switched the time and showed up at 4 o’clock.”
Kenny said students were not consulted in the decision.
“They were not brought into that conversation. We felt that we had to have a really closed circle in that conversation because of the potential for a leak.”
Audio of Abu-Jamal’s prerecorded commencement address released after the event contained no mention of Faulkner, the dead police officer. Instead, Abu-Jamal reflected on his time as a student at Goddard while serving on death row.
“Goddard allowed me to really study what interested and moved me: revolutionary movements.”
He advised students: “Your job isn’t how to get a job. It’s to make a difference. … Help be the change you’re seeking to make.”
THIN BLUE LINE: Local law enforcement and family showed support for slain Philadelphia Police Officer Daniel Faulkner. Patti Wolff, right, is the sister of Vermont State Trooper Sgt. Michael Johnson, who was killed in the line of duty in 2003.
Vermonters with ties to law enforcement said Goddard’s choice of Abu-Jamal was an insult to police and their families.
Patti Wolff of Hyde Park, sister of deceased Vermont State Trooper Sergeant Michael Johnson, expressed outraged.
“I’m a survivor. I lost my brother in 2003. I can’t imagine what (widow) Maureen Faulkner has had to go through between Hollywood people and colleges thinking this person is some kind of hero. He’s not.”
Josh Flore, a 20-year veteran police officer from Shelburne, likewise expressed disgust with Goddard.
“The college has kept us at arms length. I don’t think they want to have that conversation with us. I don’t think they want to understand where we’re coming from with this. A police officer dies in this country every 53 hours. That is never covered by the media,” he said.
Avram Patt, chairman of the board at Goddard, and a candidate for state representative running alongside House Speaker Shap Smith, said he supported the rights of students.
“This is not about supporting the speaker. It’s about the decision by this small group of students to have him address them, which is a longstanding practice and policy of the college that the students choose their speaker. … I’m supporting their right to have made that choice.”
State Rep. Jean O’Sullivan, D-Burlington, supported Goddard’s choice of Abu-Jamal as commencement speaker.
“You’ve got a really good controversial speaker who’s got a point of view. … That speaker seems like a perfect match for Goddard. It would be more radical if they had one of the Koch brothers,” O’Sullivan told Vermont Watchdog.
She added, “I just think it’s good to have all sides heard. The more controversial the better. It’s a graduation. It’s either that or some god-awful droning on about the future.”
Goddard’s Sunday switcheroo was a messaging mess.
BOMB THREATS?: Susan Wilson, Goddard dean for community life, said the school received generalized bomb threats.
Susan Wilson, a Goddard dean who made the decision with Kenny, said generalized threats led leaders to push the event up three hours.
“There was everything from, ‘You should be bombed, we’re going to bomb you.’ You know, generic veiled threats. Not when, time and place … but enough so that if I’m looking at everybody’s safety, I’m going to take even veiled threats seriously,” Wilson said.
When asked if state and local law enforcement were on the premises to protect families and students, Wilson said, “We didn’t need them.”
Instead, the college selected Green Mountain Concert Services to monitor the grounds.
“We brought in some added security guards, and we brought many of our own staff who volunteered. We set up a plan of action around access where peaceful protest could take place,” Kenny said.
Paul Shper, director of campus services, said limited capacity at the Haybarn Theatre also played a role in Goddard’s decision to close the event to the public.
“There was a big crowd — we could not have handled more people. It was part of the decision. We were going to be greater than capacity, and some of the family would be excluded. We were worried about that. The Haybarn can only hold X amount of people, and we were filled,” he said.
In Sunday’s news conference, Kenny was asked what led the college to publicize the event in the first place.
“We had a long discussion leading up to the press release and we decided that we would release it. That was a decision based on the history of what we’ve had here. Mumia has spoken at a commencement ceremony here before, and we assessed what the outcome was of that,” Kenny said.
Goddard Outreach Coordinator Samantha Kolber said Abu-Jamal was commencement speaker at Goddard in 2008, having been selected by the graduating class of the individualized Master of Arts program. She said Abu-Jamal went unnoticed that time.
But Wolff, whose life was touched by the killing Vermont State Trooper Sgt. Michael Johnson, said she noticed this time. She said she feared what kinds of minds were being shaped at Goddard.
“I’m scared for that group of students if this is who they chose. … Would they have chosen Charles Manson if this guy wasn’t available? The facts of the case are he killed a police officer in cold blood. After he shot him (the first time) he went up and shot him in the face.”
Contact Bruce Parker at firstname.lastname@example.org