After disturbance, 'joy prevailed' at Marlboro College commencement

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MARLBORO — The divisive state of the country mentioned by speakers at the Marlboro College commencement ceremony Sunday played out in real time after one of the graduating students was booed for what appeared to be political beliefs.

The student walked on stage to accept his degree when jeering came from the back of the building. The student's grandmother walked on stage later, just as the recessional music was set to begin.

"I would like to suggest that Marlboro College is progressive only in name, not in behavior," she said. "It is a disgusting display to hear people in this audience boo."

The grandmother said the school should strive to be diverse not only in race and sexual orientations but also in beliefs and debate of ideas. A student from the school also had come to the podium uninvited earlier in the ceremony to say the boo was inappropriate and inconsistent with the college's values.

College President Kevin Quigley told the Reformer he did not recognize the person who made a loud boo from the back of the auditorium but later learned it was a former student. He said the individual had fled before the school's chief of security could locate him and conferring of the degrees continued.

"One student was observed to have stepped aside from her place in line and waited for the student who had been heckled, and walked with him as a gesture of support as they left the auditorium," Quigley said. "During the academic year, the interim dean of students and I had numerous intensive discussions with the student who was heckled today and a group of students who had behaved inappropriately towards this student. Consistent with college's values, policy and practices, our community court sanctioned that group of students for their behavior unwelcome in our college community. We believe we had taken many appropriate steps to address this situation and were not anticipating any disruption at today's commencement."

Quigley repeated the words one of the honored guests at the ceremony used to sum up the event: "Joy prevailed."

Marlboro College's 71st commencement was the first in college board Chairman Richard H. Saudek's recent memory to not include snow on the ground. He commended the school on one of its most successful academic years with a high retention rate for undergraduates and increased diversity on campus. He noted the 125 acres preserved as woodlands and the decision to "strengthen the bond" between the college and the Marlboro Music Festival with two new buildings and more music programs.

The commencement marked the end of another cycle "punctuated by poignant moments and memorable experiences," said Quigley, who gave a "very special thank-you" to all the mothers in attendance as it was also Mother's Day. He called attention to the "extraordinary breadth" of interests among students who studied things like identity, art, consumer culture, political rhetoric and animal behavior. And he urged students to help make democracy succeed.

"Strive to make the most of what you learned here," Quigley said. "Keep close to each other and stay close to the college. The college and our country need you."

Fiona Craig, an undergraduate student from the Class of 2018, said she believes "every person is essentially good."

"I urge everyone to follow their own conscience and extend love and forgiveness to those who fail," she said during student addresses.

Michael Auerbach, a graduate student of the Class of 2018, told attendees he has made a lot of questionable choices.

"They were all the right ones as they turned out so it's OK but Marlboro College doesn't really teach you to make sensible choices," he said to a big round of applause. "To make choices, yes. To examine your choices. To question your choices. To analyze and discuss your choices and agonize over them then make them yours."

When attending other college commencement ceremonies, Auerbach always feels "a little bit of pity."

"I know they have not been forged in the fire you have walked through and honestly survived. Am I right?" he said and was greeted with laughter around the room.

Auerbach said he would cherish his conversations with Bob Engel, a retired professor at the college who died in January.

While announcing academic prizes and scholarships, Provost and Dean of Faculty Richard Glejzer got choked up reading the recipient of The Robert E. Engle Award. Engle, he said, "was not much for ceremony or for recognition but I always gave him a shout out when presenting this award and he would give a wave from there, somewhere in the back row."

"Many fond memories of Bob," added Glejzer. "I know I speak for all of us when I say we miss you Bob."

Altogether, 17 other prizes and 13 scholarships were given out.

Sara Coffey, class of 1990, received an honorary doctorate degree in humane letters. She has spent 25 years as a community organizer and advocate. She is the founder and director of Vermont Perforce Lab, which connects art-making with civic engagement.

"Being here, I feel so at home," she said, later telling the graduating classes, "I encourage you to be bold because now more than ever, we need community-minded innovators and creative thinkers and active citizens like you to participate, to make your imprint and make a difference in this world. Because of you, I have hope and I'm excited about your journey ahead."

Shaunna Oteka McCovey also received an honorary doctorate degree in humane letters. She is a poet, writer, and attorney who currently works as compact negotiator for the U.S. Department of Interior-Indian Affairs, Office of Self-Governance.

McCovey thanked "the Abenaki people who once occupied this land" and the Abenaki people who still live here. She grew up a member of the Yurok Tribe in northern California and continues to help the group with legal and administrative issues.

"We take care of what takes care of us; that's our golden rule," she said. "Shouldn't we be more respectful? Shouldn't we be more responsible as individuals, as communities, as nations? Since we are, after all, water-dependent human beings, shouldn't we be more responsible for what takes care of us?"

McCovey worried about an increase of environmental issues and divisiveness in the United States.

"Racists, sexists and classists have been given the green light to act in an abhorrent way," she said, urging attendees to be good, kind and responsible.

College Trustee Ted Wendell kept the valediction speech short and sweet.

"Today is an ending and a beginning," he said. "Look back with appreciation and affection on your journey to this moment. Look forward with optimism and anticipation for the opportunities that await you. Seize those opportunities."

The names of 52 undergraduates and 44 graduates were listed in the commencement program.

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.

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