Michigan Law Dean Evan Caminker has issued what appears to be his final decision about the Rob Portman fiasco. The Dean has listened to all the relevant constituencies and decided that pulling Rob Portman might cause more long term harm. And so Portman is going to be allowed to speak. Dean Caminker announced this in a letter to concerned Michigan Law alumni.

Maybe Dean Caminker is right. I mean, look at what’s happening with King & Spalding. And, to my mind, a big Senior Day protest involving LGBT and straight students at Michigan Law will really show the community just how many people support the cause of equal human rights. So some good may still come out of all of this.

But perhaps the most important thing that has happened here is that Michigan Law and Dean Caminker have learned a lesson about just how far outside the mainstream the anti-marriage-equality people have strayed. This issue seems to have moved beyond our normal partisan debates about debt ceilings and which sovereign nation we should be meddling in this week. This issue is starting to transcend, and I bet Michigan will remember that next year….

From the start, I have suspected that Dean Caminker didn’t really want to offend many of the gay and lesbian students at Michigan Law. Instead, he just somehow thought (as many do) that bringing in an anti-gay-marriage guy wouldn’t be all that offensive. He, like so many, thinks that it’s okay to have these people come up and talk about some of their views, and everybody is supposed to completely ignore that they’ve taken a stance against fundamental fairness for gays and lesbians.

Dean Caminker’s full message is reprinted below, but here you can see how he viewed the initial invitation to Senator Portman:

I hope that you recognize that I didn’t intend to send an exclusionary message by my selection. I didn’t invite Senator Portman as speaker because of his views on anything; I invited him because he is an exemplar (whether one agrees with his views or not) for someone who aspires to enter a life of public service, as so many of our students do. During the past decade Michigan Law has claimed three senators as alumni, and each was invited to speak at Senior Day. Contrary to his depiction in some recent public blogs, to the best of my knowledge Senator Portman is not an active or vocal advocate of his position on these issues. Indeed, at least two LGBT students who googled and researched for several hours found no public statements at all about them. I was certainly unaware of any at the time I made my selection, and remain so now. Of course, that’s not to defend the Senator’s actual legislative votes, which I understand are upsetting in their own right.

And you know, I think before Prop 8 actually passed in California a lot of people would have overlooked Portman’s votes on the matter, just like Dean Caminker did here. But we’re not living in a pre-Prop 8 world, we are living in a world where voters and legislatures are actively trying to pass laws and even amendments codifying discrimination against same-sex partners. Votes matter.

Again, Caminker wasn’t thinking of that at the time he extended Portman an invitation:

I understand another point your letter underscores: Senior Day is designed to be a day of celebration and not controversy. Let me reiterate that I didn’t intend to make it otherwise, and I am deeply distressed that the celebratory mood will be dampened.

But really, who is here to talk about the past? What’s done is done and as I said two weeks ago, that milk is spilt. Going forward, Dean Caminker decided that it would also send the wrong message to rescind Portman’s invitation. That’s a fair call and it is Dean Caminker’s to make. Michigan Law students have emailed ATL praising Caminker’s engagement with their concerns, despite the fact that his decision went against them. So you have to respect the dean for making the difficult choices.

And, as a dean, he can’t be only concerned with this graduating class and their celebration. He also has to think about the future of the school. And on that ground it sounds like real progress was made:

While I believe your request that I dis-invite Senator Portman as commencement speaker would be the wrong thing to do, and could also do long-term institutional damage by appearing to associate the University with ideological censorship, I can assure you that going forward I’d like to reexamine how we select commencement speakers for Senior Day, including involving student voices more actively in the process.

If all that happened here is that a major law school learned that it cannot invite enemies of marriage equality into an inclusive celebration without major push back, then something really good happened here. I think the Michigan students who opposed this choice in Senior Day speaker should be proud of what they accomplished, even though Portman is still coming to campus.

And next time, well, I’m willing to bet that next year’s speaker is far less controversial. I hear Hosni Mubarak is available.


MICHIGAN LAW — DEAN CAMINKER — SENIOR DAY SPEAKER

Dear Michigan Law Alumni:

I’d like to thank you for the letter that was received in my office yesterday signed by alumni expressing your concerns about the Law School’s selection of Senator Rob Portman as the alumnus commencement speaker for the 2011 Senior Day. I am gratified that you all remain closely connected to the School and feel an ongoing concern for the welfare of the current students as well as the mission and ethos of the School more generally.

Let me begin by saying that I understand your concerns, and I deeply regret that this decision is causing distress for members of our community. I have learned much from my recent conversations with students and alumni. I believe we are at an important turning point in history, as seen in this generation of Michigan Law students who are about to move into practice and public life.

I hope that you recognize that I didn’t intend to send an exclusionary message by my selection. I didn’t invite Senator Portman as speaker because of his views on anything; I invited him because he is an exemplar (whether one agrees with his views or not) for someone who aspires to enter a life of public service, as so many of our students do. During the past decade Michigan Law has claimed three senators as alumni, and each was invited to speak at Senior Day. Contrary to his depiction in some recent public blogs, to the best of my knowledge Senator Portman is not an active or vocal advocate of his position on these issues. Indeed, at least two LGBT students who googled and researched for several hours found no public statements at all about them. I was certainly unaware of any at the time I made my selection, and remain so now. Of course, that’s not to defend the Senator’s actual legislative votes, which I understand are upsetting in their own right.

I have invited Senator Portman to talk with students privately, if he can rearrange his travel schedule to permit a meeting prior to the commencement ceremony. If that happens, I hope it will provide an opportunity for dialogue and bridge-building along the way. This actually could provide a group of our LGBT students an extraordinary opportunity to share their feelings and perspectives in a way the Senator is otherwise unlikely to encounter.

While I believe your request that I dis-invite Senator Portman as commencement speaker would be the wrong thing to do, and could also do long-term institutional damage by appearing to associate the University with ideological censorship, I can assure you that going forward I’d like to reexamine how we select commencement speakers for Senior Day, including involving student voices more actively in the process.

I understand another point your letter underscores: Senior Day is designed to be a day of celebration and not controversy. Let me reiterate that I didn’t intend to make it otherwise, and I am deeply distressed that the celebratory mood will be dampened.

I will be hosting an open forum meeting with current students on May 2. I hope to amplify the thoughts I have outlined here, to solicit feedback about the commencement process, and most importantly to hear more as to how we can continue to create a supportive and engaged environment for LGBT students at the Law School. Some students have told me that the very reason they chose Michigan Law was its reputation for a warm and equal sense of community, and that must always be our goal. I’ll add that I have been inspired through this process from spending time discussing these issues with a group of brilliant, passionate, and committed students who are prepared to, and I expect will, take the world by storm — and ultimately succeed in this cause.

Thank you again for sharing your views. And beyond the current issue, I hope you are all doing well and enjoying challenging and fulfilling career paths.

Best wishes,

Evan Caminker

Earlier: Dean Caminker Digs In To Support Anti-Gay-Marriage Commencement Speaker At Michigan Law
Michigan Law School Invites Ohio Senator With ‘Anti-Gay Politics’ To Speak At Senior Day


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