For the second year in a row, Bowie State University’s commencement will take place away from the school’s campus, fueling the plans of a group of Bowie’s alumni, students and faculty to protest at the site of the ceremony and sparking charges of paternalism and racism by the University System of Maryland.
Bowie’s 2014 Spring Commencement is scheduled for May 19 at 10 a.m. at the Comcast Center on the campus of the University of Maryland, with Norman R. Augustine, a regent for the University System of Maryland, scheduled to deliver the commencement address.
Last year, first lady Michelle Obama was Bowie’s commencement speaker, also at the Comcast Center. She told approximately 600 graduates and thousands of their supporters that the creation of what would become Bowie State in 1865 was an, “eloquent act of defiance.”
This year, a group led by the Prince George’s County chapter of the Bowie State Alumni Association are planning a demonstration in defiance of what they say was an arbitrary decision to once again hold Bowie’s commencement at the University of Maryland. The group plans to assemble at the Metzerott Road entrance of UM from 8 a.m. to 9:30 am to protest the move.
“It’s a cost factor involved in this, it costs us $198,436 to move the commencement from Bowie to Comcast and I don’t think Bowie can afford to pay that kind of money,” said Diane Wilson-Bragg, a member of Bowie’s alumni association who graduated from the school in 1961.
“We’ve been having it at the stadium (Bulldog Stadium) and I know if we have bad weather we should have another place commensurate to the Comcast Center at Maryland…built on our campus,” she said. “I’ve attended the last 10 commencements [at Bowie]. When they moved it to Maryland I did not go over there and I will not go over there.”
Others had objections beyond the nearly $200,000 price tag for Bowie.
“The faculty and the alumni and most of the students were against that,” said Dr. John Organ, Jr., a tenured professor at Bowie who has been at the university for 38 years. “Why is a historically Black college going to a White school in the same system…it cheapens our graduation by moving it off-campus to any other school.”
According to Bowie’s administration, the decision to move the commencement to the Comcast Center last year was directly connected to the appearance of Obama as commencement speaker.
But Organ suggested that rationale is dubious given the fact Bowie hosted Barack Obama when he was in the beginning stages of his presidential bid in 2006, and again at a voting rally led by President Obama in October 2010.
“This year the [Bowie] president [Mickey Burnim] didn’t say a word, he just moved it…no vote, no nothing was taken this year,” Organ said. “At least they had some sham last year.”
Bowie’s administration says the move off-campus will allow graduates and more of their supporters to enjoy the commencement experience more comfortably.
“We don’t have adequate indoor space on-campus to accommodate the larger commencement that we have in the spring, but the winter commencement in December we have it on campus, said Damita Chambers, assistant director of Public Relations for Bowie State.
“The university did an on-line survey of various constituent groups…to see if the majority was in favor of having it at a different off-site facility if it meant that we could accommodate the graduates and their families better,” added Chambers, who also said Burnim consulted with the school’s commencement committee, which is comprised of faculty, students and staff, before making the decision to return to the Comcast Center.
However, Organ disputed the methodology of the commencement survey, and said the issues of cost and accommodation for Bowie’s commencement obscure deeper and perhaps more troubling connotations between the historically Black institution and the University System of Maryland to which it belongs.
“Why are you making such an issue of this? The students overwhelmingly want the ceremony at Comcast (which is in PG County)…How many of those protesting this move would even attend the ceremony wherever it was held?” University Maryland System Chancellor William “Brit” Kirwan, wrote in an April 11, 2013 e-mail to Organ. Kirwan, who earlier this week announced his resignation as chancellor, conducted an incendiary e-mail exchange with Organ last year over the latter’s opposition to the move.
“You are being an obstructionist on a matter that has been appropriately and thoroughly considered by the President Burnim,” Kirwan wrote. “Why don’t you show some class and grace and throw your support behind something that should be a great occasion for BSU?”
“You are making it about me and I am representing Bowie’s faculty,” Organ, president of Bowie’s Faculty Senate for more than 20 years, wrote in response. “Would you have the same attitude if Salisbury University students wanted to move its commencement to the UMES [University of Maryland Eastern Shore] campus against the will of its faculty and alumni?”
“It seems you have a different attitude concerning Bowie because you feel we should accept a second class treatment,” Organ added.
Bowie, which will celebrate its 150th anniversary next year, had never held its commencement on another school’s campus before last year.
“The only reason we didn’t rally last year was in respect to Michelle Obama,” said Diane Wilson-Bragg. “If you matriculate at Bowie State, if you can come to Bowie State for four years…why not graduate from Bowie State?”