Furman Faculty Balk at Bush Appearance

President Bush is scheduled to deliver the commencement address at Furman University on May 31. But faculty members at the South Carolina school are leading opposition to the visit, citing objections to his administration's policies on Iraq.

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When a college in South Carolina invited President Bush to deliver its commencement address, it didn't seem like a recipe for controversy. Furman University has a reputation for attracting conservative students, and it's located in a county where Mr. Bush won two-thirds of the 2004 vote. But now with the president's speech just 10 days away, his appearance has sparked opposition on campus.

NPR's Adam Hochberg reports from Greenville.

ADAM HOCHBERG: It's not so much the students who are upset about President Bush coming to Furman. Most of the 650 graduates here either feel honored by the president's visit or don't care much as long as they still get their diplomas. Instead, the protest is being led by Furman professors.

In dozens of office windows on this well-groomed suburban campus are black-and-white posters that say We Object.

Professor CARMELA EPRIGHT (Furman University): Those are all faculty offices.

HOCHBERG: And they all have little protest signs.

Professor EPRIGHT: The We Object. Yeah. And if you were to walk down here in Furman Hall, you'd probably see a number of them.

HOCHBERG: Carmela Epright is one of more than 200 professors who signed a petition opposing Mr. Bush's visit. That's about half of Furman's faculty. They say they're ashamed of his policies on Iraq, the environment and other issues.

Professor EPRIGHT: We're giving him a platform to speak to us. It's not a critical platform. There's not going to be discussion. There's not going to be a question-and-answer period. We worry that we're condoning his policies.

HOCHBERG: Some professors who signed the petition plan to boycott graduation. They're seeking conscientious objector status to a university policy that requires them to attend. Others plan to listen to the president. But psychology professor Judy Grisel says they may wear armbands or T-shirts.

Professor JUDY GRISEL (Furman University): I feel obliged to say that I object. I object to what he has done to the country, to international policy, and I'm appalled that he is going to speaking as if, you know, he were someone that we would want to emulate.

HOCHBERG: These kinds of controversies aren't unusual this time of year. Earlier in his administration, President Bush sparked protests when he gave commencement speeches at St. Vincent College in Pennsylvania and Calvin College in Michigan.

But at Furman, student body president Kristina Henderson says the protest is not popular with this year's graduating class.

Ms. CHRISTINA HENDERSON (Student Body President): We want the focus still to be on the seniors, and we think that the protest is taking away from what graduation really is about.

HOCHBERG: Henderson is a Democrat, a relative rarity among students here. She even worked for Hillary Clinton's campaign. But she says professors should show respect for Mr. Bush's title even if they dislike his policies.

Other Furman students have gone further in criticizing the faculty. Nathan Guinn is part of a campus conservative group that's labeled the protest an embarrassing publicity stunt.

Mr. NATHAN GUINN (Student): The message is getting out to the media that Furman doesn't want the president here, and it makes us look very arrogant, I believe. For people who love to use the language of tolerance and acceptance, to endure a 20-minute speech from the president of the United States, we felt like - was a worthwhile request.

HOCHBERG: University administrators say they're trying to stay neutral, agreeing to the presidential visit because that reflected the will of the student body. Faculty leaders weren't consulted. Furman President David Shi says he encourages a vigorous campus debate, but he admits apprehension about what may happen graduation day.

Mr. DAVID SHI (Furman University President): I think anyone would be concerned about the possibility of uncivil behavior at a ceremony that is steeped in significance. Although I certainly can't control that, I can hope that our faculty will behave very appropriately for the occasion.

HOCHBERG: In addition to speaking at Furman, President Bush is scheduled to deliver another commencement address this month, but it's very unlikely there'll be protesters at that one. It's at the Air Force Academy, where students and most faculty members take an oath to obey the commander-in-chief.

Adam Hochberg, NPR News, Greenville, South Carolina.

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