by Hayley O’Brien
Questions are being raised about whether the commencement speaker selection process was redone to right a procedural irregularity or to keep a transgender person off the stage.
“The committee took many factors into consideration,” said Richard Mandeville, vice president of Student Life. “No one was removed from consideration by the committee based on their sexual identity.”
However, Mandeville refused to disclose what criteria was used to choose the commencement speakers because the inner workings of the committee are confidential, he said.
The end result is a transgender student is no longer the choice to speak at commencement.
During the original speaker selection in April, finalists were told via email they would present their proposed speeches to a panel of peers. However, when they arrived, they instead found a panel of one, Ashton Lupton, senior class coordinator.
“I asked four or five people to participate in the process who replied back with ‘maybes’ but ultimately everyone was busy and I was told I had to choose the speakers before Spring Break,” Lupton said.
Soon after hearing each finalist’s speech, Lupton consulted with assistant dean of students Dayna Coleman and student activities graduate assistant Rachel McKay.
Following Whitworth tradition, Lupton chose a female and a male to speak at commencement: Sarah Streyder and Ashton Skinner, a transgender male who has declined to comment in this article.
During spring break, President Beck Taylor received complaints from several members of the Whitworth community, including students who had wanted the chance to speak at commencement, Taylor said. They felt the selection process was unfair because it didn’t follow the original plan calling for a panel of peers.
They had “legitimate grounds to be disappointed,” said Taylor, who asked Mandeville to intervene if necessary to ensure a fair process.
Days later, Streyder and Skinner each received an email from Mandeville, saying the invitation to speak at commencement was rescinded.
This is the first time in at least five years the administration has intervened in the commencement speaker selection process. Last year there was also controversy about the selection process. Challenges were made in regard to the fairness of allowing people to vote multiple times.
“I was very sad because, while I got to reapply, there was this sneaking concern that whoever got the selection process reversed must not have been happy with those of us who got picked, so, we are less likely to get picked the second time around,” Streyder said about this year’s process.
The week immediately following spring break, Mandeville appointed a committee to re-select commencement speakers. The committee members included not only student peers as previously promised by Lupton but faculty and staff members as well.
The committee consisted of Vice president of Student Life Richard Mandeville; two students, senior class coordinator Ashton Lupton and senior Phillip Moore; two staff members, chief of staff Rosetta Rhodes and campus pastor Mindy Smith; and two faculty members: history professor Dale Soden and communications professor and speech and debate team coach Mike Ingram.
As a result of the new selection process, Streyder was re-selected as the female speaker but Ashton Skinner was replaced as the male speaker by Sam Director.
Some seniors such as Alma Aguilar have challenged the necessity and fairness of the second selection process. Aguilar sent a letter to Mandeville contesting the way the selection process had been executed.
“I think from the bottom of my heart that if Ashton [Skinner] wasn’t a transgender male there wouldn’t have been an uproar about needing a panel number two,” Aguilar said.
Streyder also wrote a letter to the committee requesting that Ashton Skinner replace her as a commencement speaker. She said she believed that would be a more just outcome than what had been decided.
Mandeville responded that the selection of commencement speakers was the role of the committee and by giving her spot to Skinner she would be selecting one of the speakers.
Seniors have also questioned whether Skinner’s transgender identity played a role in the selection of commencement speakers.
“We are not proposing that there was discrimination done—we can’t prove that, unfortunately, but if there is any possibility or doubt that is what happened we would like to see some action being taken,” Aguilar said.
Contact Hayley O’Brien at firstname.lastname@example.org