Morehouse College pushes the White House for 'direct engagement' ahead of Biden's speech

ATLANTA — Morehouse College faculty members remain apprehensive about the decision to have President Joe Biden deliver the school’s commencement speech on May 19 and have asked the White House to take some steps to address their concerns.

Regine Jackson, a professor of sociology and the dean of the Humanities, Social Sciences, Media and Arts Division, said the faculty members were hoping for some “direct engagement” with Biden ahead of his speech, pointing to a town hall Vice President Kamala Harris held during her visit to the school last fall.

“There was an opportunity for an exchange, and we all recognize that commencement is not that opportunity, so [we’re] trying to find and carve out space and time for that,” Jackson said.

Jackson was among the roughly 80 faculty members who joined a virtual meeting last week, arranged by Morehouse administration leaders, to give them an avenue to voice their concerns, which largely centered on worries that Biden’s presence could distract from the graduation ceremony and unease over his policies toward Israel and its war in the Gaza Strip.

A spokesperson for Morehouse said that the request for additional dialogue with Biden was expected — and that the school proactively has been talking with White House officials about a meeting ahead of the commencement address.

The White House declined to comment.

Cedric Richmond speaks speaks on stage (Paras Griffin / Getty Images file)

Cedric Richmond speaks speaks on stage (Paras Griffin / Getty Images file)

A top Democratic official who has been engaged in discussions with the Morehouse community is Cedric Richmond, a Morehouse alumnus who is a co-chair of Biden’s re-election campaign.

“I’m friends with everybody over there. Of course I talk to them,” Richmond said, adding that he intends to attend commencement but does not plan to go to the school ahead of time.

“The president speaking at a college is not about the president. It’s about the college and the students,” he said. “How many schools graduate 500 Black men at one time?”

Morehouse is the only college in the country dedicated to educating Black men. It is one of just two colleges where Biden will deliver commencement addresses this year; the other is the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York.

Morehouse Provost Kendrick Brown, one of the officials who organized the call to address faculty concerns, acknowledged that a Harris-style town hall is unlikely, given the president’s schedule, but he said they have requested some form of additional communication as tensions remain high on college campuses in Georgia and nationwide over the war in Gaza.

“We can’t control President Biden’s schedule. But we can certainly say that if it’s possible, it would be great if we could engage before the commencement. What form that might take and how that may show expression, of course, all of that is still a conversation,” Brown said.

Concerns over Biden’s visit increased among some faculty members as protests at college campuses have led to the arrests of students and, in some cases, allegations of excessive force by police.

Last week, a Morehouse student was among 28 students arrested at a pro-Palestinian protest and encampment at nearby Emory University, further fueling concerns not just that similar protests would rock Morehouse’s campus during Biden’s address, but also that students would be met with force by law enforcement personnel.

“At Martin Luther King’s alma mater, we have a moral responsibility to speak up against injustices, and our students are being violently repressed and attacked for doing so. And I’m scared of what it’s going to mean for our students,” political science professor Andrew Douglas said.

Students, faculty members and leadership alike have said they expect some sort of protests around the president’s visit this month and are focused on preventing the type of escalation at other schools from occurring at Morehouse.

Douglas said he had spoken to several faculty members who said that “under no conditions are they going to sit on a stage with Joe Biden.”

Jackson said: “The demonstrations, I think we should expect them. I think if we don’t prepare for them, it will be at our own peril.

“One of the things that we’ve seen over and over again with this generation is their ability to be, on the one hand, respectful and, on the other hand, not be silenced and to make their voices heard.” Jackson said. “I don’t expect anything less from our graduating class.”

Richmond was also optimistic about decorum.

“It’s a solemn event on a Sunday in the morning,” he said, “and I hope that people recognize the solemnness of that with parents, family and friends watching.”

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