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Pomp and Conflicting Stances

Crowd reaction is mixed as the governor stresses the importance of community colleges in commencement address in Santa Monica.

June 15, 2005|Peter Hong and Jessica Gresko | Times Staff Writers

Graduating students mostly cheered, but some audience members booed Tuesday as Arnold Schwarzenegger returned to one of his alma maters, Santa Monica College, to deliver his first commencement address as governor of California.

Schwarzenegger, who Monday ordered a special election that could trim the power of the Legislature, mostly avoided politics in his address, concentrating instead on the importance of community colleges such as Santa Monica in California's system of higher education.

The cheers and boos were mixed as Randal Lawson, the college's executive vice president, introduced the governor.

Applause prevailed when Lawson began naming Schwarzenegger's films, especially "The Terminator."

But catcalls and jeers grew louder when Lawson mentioned Schwarzenegger's election as governor.

Schwarzenegger wore a black academic gown but no cap, with an orange cowl, signifying his business degree, draped across his shoulders.

A clear split emerged between the graduates -- who gave him two standing ovations -- and the larger audience behind them.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday June 16, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 43 words Type of Material: Correction
Schwarzenegger address -- An article in Wednesday's California section about Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's commencement address at Santa Monica College quoted him as recalling "pulling up in his Volkswagen" to attend his first English class at the college. In fact, he said "my Volkswagen."

When Schwarzenegger said it had been an honor to attend Santa Monica College because "no one in my family attended college, no one even graduated from high school," the graduates applauded enthusiastically.

But several faculty members turned their backs on the governor.

When some audience members blew whistles and screamed in protest, many graduates turned and held fingers to their mouths or said, "Be quiet." In his speech, Schwarzenegger recalled "pulling up in his Volkswagen" to attend his first English class at the college.

"All of us were foreign students," he said. "We read, 'I will go to school,' and laughed. The teacher was helping us to read faster. It was such a joy."

Schwarzenegger attended Santa Monica College between 1971 and 1974, taking various general education courses, said college spokesman Bruce Smith. Eventually he earned a bachelor of arts degree in business and international economics from the University of Wisconsin-Superior.

In his prepared remarks, the governor said community colleges "are critical to maintaining our first-class higher education system and preparing our students to meet the demands of our economy.

"As governor and as a former community college student, I am committed to ensuring that our community colleges provide affordable, quality education to our students," he said.

Schwarzenegger appeared to lose the graduates' attention when he recalled his boyhood fascination with bodybuilding.

But he won them back when he told him they were fortunate to live "in the greatest state, in the greatest country in the world."

Later, he was whisked away in a golf cart, and the audience was largely silent as the students received their diplomas.

Before the ceremonies, about 100 demonstrators who were protesting the governor's appearance gathered at the entrance to the lot where those attending the graduation parked.

Waving signs and chanting such slogans as "Racist, Sexist, Anti-Gay, Schwarzenegger, Go Away," the protesters said they were opposed to the governor's policies.

"We never had a governor attack education like this before," said Benny Blaydes, a counselor at the college.

About 20 demonstrators supported the governor.

"He is an alumnus of the school. He's a great role model. He has been very successful in business and in entertainment and in politics. And we hope people will stay focused on that," said Ben Eisenberg, an economics major at the school and president of the campus Republican group. As word spread on campus last month that the governor would be the graduation speaker, some students and instructors called for the invitation to be withdrawn, saying that Schwarzenegger has undermined education by raising student fees and challenging faculty unions.

"Some on the faculty see him as definitely someone we wanted, and others don't," said Lesley Kawaguchi, a history instructor who chairs the Academic Senate.

In May, the faculty passed a resolution that distanced itself from Schwarzenegger's policies, including fee increases and proposed changes to teacher tenure rules, but did not call for cancellation of the invitation.

The faculty resolution passed by a 32-8 vote, with four abstentions.Some students were worried that the protesters and the governor's speech had steered the focus of the graduation away from their achievements and made parking and security difficult for family and friends.

"I'm kind of annoyed by the whole thing," said graduating film major Greg Klein. "I'm trying to get my diploma."

"I'm definitely against the protests," said graduate Dina Cervantes, this school year's student representative on the college's Board of Trustees.

"The students worked really hard to get to this day."

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Times staff writer Eric Malnic contributed to this report.

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