Schwarzenegger faces boos, turned backs at Santa Monica College

Several Santa Monica College faculty members stood and turned their backs to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger when he took the stage during commencement ceremonies in the Corsair Stadium Tuesday evening. The sign held by two faculty members reads, "$80,000,000 buys a lot of books." Heather O'Quinn / TMT

The governor gave his commencement speech, enduring constant chanting and disapproval from faculty and students alike.

By Ryan O’Quinn/Special to The Malibu Times

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger took the stage Tuesday at Santa Monica College’s Corsair Stadium, which was filled with a maximum capacity crowd, and faced boos, chants, turned backs and signs of protest to his policies on education funding.

As the governor entered the stage to give his commencement address, a handful of people left the auditorium and immediately chants, boos and whistling commenced and continued during his entire speech. Of the 200 employees seated onstage behind the governor, most of which were faculty members, eight stood up and turned their backs and two of the six held a sign that read “$80 million buys a lot of books.”

About 10 graduating students seated in front of the audience got up and turned their backs to the governor onstage, later that group grew to 16, and scattered throughout the audience five groups of 10 or so students booed. Several held a 10-foot by 6-foot banner that read “$80 million for higher education, not for special education.” When Santa Monica police took the sign away from the students, it seemed as if the entire audience booed the action, and the 10 who were holding the sign held their hands out with their thumbs down and chanted.

Schwarzenegger gave his speech as if nothing unusual were happening, even receiving a cheer when he mentioned one of his movies “Conan the Barbarian.”

He spoke of how Santa Monica College taught him to read, write and speak English, and spoke highly of his professors who encouraged him, telling him he could do anything he wanted to do. As his speech progressed, several faculty members seated behind him stood up and cheered the governor.

Other SMC faculty, staff and students protested at the other end of the campus in order to not disrupt the ceremonies.

Before and during the governor’s speech, which began at 6 p.m., approximately 300 protestors filled Santa Monica’s streets between 16th and 23rd on Pico Boulevard waving signs, marching and yelling. Santa Monica and other college faculty members gathered at 20th and Pico.

One woman was seen with three children, who appeared to be less than 10 years old, marching down the street. The children wore red and white signs that read “For Sale, by Arnold.”

Malibu High School junior Teddy Siegel and his friend, Dane Sandberg, also a junior at the school, were among protesters Tuesday.

“I think it’s absolutely spectacular that there’s a big turnout against what Schwarzenegger is doing,” Siegel said. “I hope this sends a message that California won’t accept what he’s doing.”

Sandberg agreed, saying, “It’s about time that people show their true beliefs about Arnold.”

The governor has come under fire recently from a barrage of special interest groups and labor unions, including teachers, who say he reneged on campaign promises that included an increase in education spending.

This comes on the heels of another teachers union, The California Teachers Association, approving a dues increase to replenish monies the union plans to use to fight a special election Schwarzenegger announced on Monday. One ballot measure will call for a limit on the increase in state education spending and another increases the amount of time it takes for a teacher to receive tenure.

Sherman Lambert, a member of the union, United Teachers of Los Angeles, said, “The special election is a tremendous waster of resources. Our schools are already running short.”

Another community college teacher, Cynthia Kastan, who did not want to reveal which college she worked for, said, “I want Arnold to stop representing corporate interests and start representing the interests of working individuals.”

“Give back the $3.2 billion dollars you borrowed from education and do no cut my pension,” she added.

The Schwarzenegger camp as well as the unions have taken their respective agendas to the street by using radio and television ads. Schwarzenegger spokeswoman Margita Thompson has accused the unions of distorting the truth and says the governor has spent more money per student than any other governor.

There was a small group of 30 or so supporters of the governor, including Genevieve Peters, a former teacher with the Long Beach Unified School District. “He’s making really tough choices and that’s what a governor should do,” she said. “Also, it’s not about money, it’s about qualified teachers in classrooms.”

Of the choice of the governor as guest speaker, Peters said, “He’s a success story, he’s an excellent representative for Santa Monica College.”

Rumbles of SMC faculty planning to protest the governor’s appearance surfaced last week as members circulated e-mails debating the pros and cons of protesting Schwarzenegger’s address and how to carry out various protests to the governor’s visit and subsequent speech.

The Malibu Times obtained a few of the intra-college e-mails by the SMC faculty and administrators.

One faculty member suggested that the faculty wear their graduation regalia as usual until Schwarzenegger takes the podium, then either turn their back or walk out on him during his speech. Another recommended that the faculty wear graduation attire while protesting outside the stadium.

Yet others in the e-mail correspondence reminded faculty that the event was a celebration for the students and their families, and encouraged a graduation without incident. One said any protest could backfire and cause the governor to emerge as the champion of students and also galvanize his opposition to community colleges.

“I’ve talked to a lot of people and I think there’s a real mix of people on campus,” said Bruce Smith, public information officer for the college, in an interview prior to commencement ceremonies. “There are students and employees who think that it’s really cool that the governor’s coming and they are excited. There are students and employees who wanted us to un-invite him and there are those who may or may not like the governor’s policies, but feel that graduation is not the place to turn it into a three-ring circus.”

Some administrators and professors claimed they would be doing the student body an injustice by not exercising their First Amendment rights by vocalizing their discontent with the governor’s policies. Others, using the same logic, said professional educators must adhere to civil etiquette during such a gathering and save the public protests for before or after the ceremony.

“We invited [Schwarzenegger] right after he was elected,” Smith said. “He is an alumnus and he wasn’t able to make it in 2004, but was [able] in 2005. I think you are going to find that, among the protestors, most of them are off-campus people. It’s a real mixed bag of sentiment about the whole thing.”

Smith also noted that this is the first year the college has had to issue tickets to graduation. Corsair Stadium in Santa Monica had 5,000 seats for the event and all were distributed in a short amount of time, he said.

Near the end of his speech, Schwarzenegger said, “Don’t just take, give something back,” and, “Win, win, win and give back to the community.” The audience responded with half cheering and half jeering.

After the governor left the stage, Robert Adams, vice president of student affairs, said, “This is a graduation I will never forget.

“This is about you. Let’s focus on you.”

The entire audience of family members, graduating students and faculty erupted into a deafening response of applause and stomping and cheering.