African-American seniors at Michigan State University (MSU) will have the option of participating in two graduation ceremonies this spring. Following the example set by the University of Michigan, MSU students organized an additional commemorative event specifically to honor the accomplishments of black graduates.
The event, which will be open to all members of the MSU graduating class regardless of their race, was created partially in response to exceptionally low graduation rates among black students. MSU’s African-American retention rate is the lowest of all minorities on campus at only 44.7 percent.
While students initiating the event have received donations and support from various campus administrators, the MSU undergraduate student government did not offer its support, saying that the event did not apply to all students.
“I don’t see it as any more segregationist than having a [ceremony just for the] graduate school,” said Rodney Patterson, director of Racial and Ethnic Affairs at MSU and a supporter of the event. “I don’t understand the distinction between this [ceremony] and theirs,” he added.
While, according to Patterson, the event has not elicited much substantial protest on campus, it has received dissent from some students arguing its racist implications.
“Everyone who graduates has accomplished something. There is no need to have separate celebrations for members of a different race. It’s time to put things like that behind us,” said Michael Cykouski, a student at MSU in an editorial published by The State News, MSU’s student-published newspaper.
Other students argue that the commemorative event is a positive incentive for African-Americans to graduate.
“[This] is a great opportunity to celebrate the accomplishments of black students,” said MSU student Michael Barry in another editorial published by The State News. “Blacks have the lowest graduation retention rate at MSU. I think students who make it definitely deserve recognition,” he added.
The issue of a separate commemorative event for black students is met with similarly mixed responses from Cornell students.
Some students find the ceremony to be a harmless display of celebration within the black community and fully support the initiative of the MSU students.
“Why is it a constant controversy when black students congregate or have any activities together? Why isn’t the ceremony perceived to be a positive celebration for the graduation of students who successfully fulfilled a personal goal towards potential greatness for the future?” argued Dacia Beard ’05 and Audrey Yiadom ’05.
Other students feel that the ceremony is well-intended but unnecessarily segregationist.
“I think it’s important to honor [a student’s] accomplishments. But it’s probably not a good idea to segregate students [in such a way].”
Finally, other students think that the implementation of such an event is insulting to other races.
“It’s patronizing to take one race and say that it’s more of a feat to graduate than it is for any other race,” said Jaffa Panken ’05. “I don’t think my intellectual abilities are based on my race,” Panken added.
Regardless of whether or not Cornell students support such a commemorative ceremony, chances are likely that the university will not be faced with this controversy.
“I think it would create bad blood,” said Don Ohadike, director of the Africana Center.
“Such a thing could encourage other communities [to hold similar ceremonies]. That could lead to balkanization of a community that is supposed to come together annually for a major event,” he added.
MSU’s African-American commemorative ceremony will take place May 3, the same weekend as the university’s other graduation events.
Archived article by Ellen Miller