Paul Simon to serenade seniorsPublished: April 30, 2010
Singer-songwriter Paul Simon will sing at commencement on May 23, helping Brandeis seniors to end their four years at the university on a happy note, despite some senior’s remaining anger over the choice of Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren as the speaker at the ceremony.
The news broke Wednesday when University President Jehuda Reinharz sent an e-mail to the class of 2010 informing them that Simon, who was already scheduled to receive an honorary degree at the ceremony, would also serenade seniors to a tune of his choice. Simon will also speak at the School of Creative Arts commencement ceremony.
In the e-mail, Reinharz attributed the news to students organizing around bringing Simon to campus.
“The decision came after we reached out to Mr. Simon’s management and conveyed the excitement of your ‘Facebook’ campaign requesting that he sing,” Reinharz wrote. “This will certainly contribute to making commencement a memorable moment for you and your families.”
Michael Weil ’10, one of the co-founders of the Facebook campaign to encourage Simon to sing at commencement, said he was surprised by the cooperation of the university administration in helping to convince Simon to sing.
“I told President Reinharz that this would be a good way to show people we appreciate the arts, and he said he thought it was a great idea,” Weil said.
Weil then talked to Professor. Scott Edminston (FA) who was in contact with Simon’s management. Edminston told Weil he should create a petition that Edminston could show Simon.
The Facebook group Weil created as a result had 200 members over night, and currently there are 730 members.
Edminston said there was a “short e-mail exchange between me and Simon’s assistant to his assistant to his assistant” before he learned that Simon had agreed to speak and sing.
The announcement of Simon’s upcoming performance comes one day before a protest staged by students who are angered that Oren’s speaking at commencement.
One group of students will protest this today at 3 p.m. outside of the Bernstein-Marcus administrative building. These students, organized in the Facebook group “Commencement was Supposed to Be About Us: Against Michael Oren as Speaker,” which has 233 members, think “regardless of the motivations for having Oren speak at commencement, it will be fundamentally divisive at a ceremony that is supposed to be unifying,” Dan Orkin ’‘10, one of the protest’s organizers said.
Oren was chosen to speak last week by Reinharz from the list of honorary degree recipients.
While Reinharz did not respond to The Hoot’s requests for comment, he did reply to an e-mail from one student upset about his decision, writing he was “surprised and frankly somewhat disappointed” by the student’s anger.
“Do you really want the absence of all possible controversy to be the standard by which Brandeis selects its honorees?” the e-mail continued. “You appear to believe that it’s fine to have controversial speakers so long as the university doesn’t honor them at commencement. If the honorees at commencement are all to be non-controversial insofar as any in the audience are concerned, you remove from the list of potential honorees a great many individuals with outstanding records of accomplishment.”
Though students against Oren speaking may be the most vocal, they are not the only voices–or the only ones forming Facebook groups–on the issue.
One Facebook group called “A Letter in Support of President Reinharz and Ambassador Oren” has 158 members. Another group, titled “Two Groups About Michael Oren = Division = Reason He Shouldn’t Speak” has 31 members.
The announcement that Simon will sing at commencement has the potential to reunify the senior class in support and excitement that they will get a concert as well as a ceremony to end their days at Brandeis. Even Orkin, who said Simon’s singing “doesn’t compensate for the choice of Oren as commencement speaker” admitted that “it’s a unifying gesture for sure.”
Simon’s ability to unify is not specific to Brandeis’ graduating class–many of whom are united by the shear excitement of having a live concert as part of the ceremony. Professor Judy Eissenberg (FA), who teaches about Paul Simon in her Introduction to World Music class, said Simon is a unifying figure.
Eissenberg described Simon as the “midwife of world music,” describing how his visit to apartheid South Africa in 1986 and the subsequent release of his album “Graceland” simultaneously brought world music to the popular music charts while raising awareness about social and racial conditions in the country.
“He says his music is above politics, but nothing can ever be fully above politics,” Eissenberg said. “That’s the power of music. It touches people and can keep people in the same room when they just want to leave and stop talking to each other.”
As for Weil, he’s just looking forward to seeing what song Simon chooses.
“I didn’t do this to galvanize and unite everyone,” Weil said. “I did this because I’m a big Paul Simon fan and want everyone to have a good time at commencement. But this has been a crazy commencement. First everyone protests Oren, and now we have Paul Simon singing. Nothing surprises me anymore.”