Sonoma State University – June 2017

Student’s poem at graduation ceremony causes controversy

Rohnert Park, CA

Sonoma State University President Judy Sakaki apologized for a poem that graduating senior Dee Dee Simpson read during the 2017 commencement ceremony. In the poem, Simpson spoke of police violence against African-Americans and was critical of President Trump. The poem also contained expletives. After the incident, alumni, faculty, and students signed a letter to Sakaki objecting to her apology.

Key Players

Judy Sakaki is the president of Sonoma State University (SSU). She is the first Japanese-American woman to head a four-year college or university in the United States. Prior to taking over as president of SSU in August 2016, she worked as an administrator in the University of California system. She had just finished her first full academic year as president.

Dee Dee Simpson, a member of SSU’s class of 2017, read the controversial poem during the commencement ceremony. The poem, which Simpson wrote, contained expletives, mentions of police violence against African-Americans, and criticisms of Donald Trump. One portion of the poem included the line, “My people live in places you wouldn’t drive through in an armored truck.”

Eric McGuckin is an anthropology professor at SSU. He wrote the letter to Sakaki criticizing her decision to apologize for Simpson’s reading of the poem. In the letter, which was also posted on Facebook, McGuckin wrote, “Many of us felt Ms. Simpson’s recitation was perhaps the most impactful address of the ceremony, and we hope that in the future, rather than calling for apologies, such controversies are seen as an opportunity for the administration to support our students, and encourage dialogue and learning.”

Further Details

As part of the apology, Sakaki wrote that, “while this individual student is among our accomplished poets, having her offer this particular piece at the Arts and Humanities commencement was a mistake.” Simpson has not commented publicly on her reading of the poem.

Several parents were reportedly shaking their heads when the expletive “f***” was said during Simpson’s poem, according to a report from The Blaze. In an email to an angry parent after the incident, Sakaki reportedly described the poem as a “mistake” that “should not have happened.” Sakaki has not commented publicly about the letter she received from alumni, faculty and students criticizing her decision to apologize for the poem. More than 100 people signed the letter, including at least 23 faculty members, reports The Press Democrat.

In an email to The Press Democrat, Gary Delsohn, a spokesman for the university, wrote that President Sakaki is a defender of free speech, but that the use of profanity was “inappropriate” for the commencement ceremony due to the presence of families. The Press Democrat also reported that angry parents sent emails to Sakaki asking for an explanation of why the poem was allowed to be read.

However, a SSU English professor said that the poem was met with applause. “I’m not surprised it evoked strong reactions,” she told The Press Democrat. “That’s a sign of good work.”


Professor writes letter criticizing the president for apologizing

Eric McGuckin, a professor at SSU, wrote a letter that was signed by at least 23 faculty members and numerous other alumni and students criticizing Sakaki’s decision to apologize for the reading of the poem. A university spokesman pointed specifically to the profanity as a cause for the apology.

External References:

Faculty criticize Sonoma State President Judy Sakaki over apology for provocative graduation speech, The Press Democrat

Faculty criticize Sonoma State President Judy Sakaki over apology for provocative graduation poem, The Press Democrat

Eric McGuckin’s Letter

Black student’s anti-Trump poem recited at college graduation is ripped as ‘hate speech,’ The Blaze

Anger Over Poem and Apology at Sonoma State, Inside Higher Ed

Critics blast SSU graduation poem as ‘Hate speech,’ The Press Democrat

Prepared by Graham Piro ‘18

October 2, 2017