What happened at Rockford College?

Just how extensive were the protests against New York Times reporter Chris Hedges’ commencement address at Rockford College on Saturday, May 17? Did those protests represent the sentiment of the students, parents and guests present?

Hedges’ address and the reaction to it have become a national news story because he was forced to stop his speech by avid protesters objecting to the anti-war message of his address.

The Rock River Times has found various amplifications in certain media reports on the incident. In the interest of the truth and the reputation of Rockford College and our community, consider the following points and perspectives.


WNIJ-FM News Director Susan Stephens was present before and immediately following Hedges’ commencement address that Saturday. Personal duties kept her from the event itself, but she investigated the story and deserves the credit of breaking the story on Monday morning, after pulling an “all nighter” to do so at 6:30 a.m., with additional information in the follow-up story at 8 a.m.

Stephens asserts some in the media have presented misinformation about this story.

First, as to Hedges’ microphone being unplugged twice during his address, “I think there’s misinformation that the college unplugged the mics,” she said.

Those present are quite sure the microphone was unplugged twice by a person or persons who disagreed with Hedges. The time it took to correct the problem substantially reduced and disrupted Hedges’ speech.

“There’s a lot of misinformation that [Rockford College President] Dr. Pribbenow told him to stop,” she said. “You can hear on the mic that it was by mutual agreement” between Pribbenow and Hedges.”

Stephens also asserts that the number of air horns, rather than foghorns that some media reported, was exaggerated, as was their significance. “Air horns are typical at any graduation, indoors or outdoors. Everything gets a little bigger the longer it goes. It’s that game of telephone.

“I think it’s interesting that they [the college] got a lot of hate or protest letters and e-mails from left and right, so it’s obviously a misunderstood story.

“What he [Hedges] spoke about is absolutely what was in his book,” Stephens added. “I’ve been reading it, and he’s said it before.

“It was his first commencement speech, too. He told me that. He had spoken at colleges, but they were just lectures, and I think that’s misunderstood, too.

“I think the one that absolutely is the worst is the attempt to characterize or categorize the students that go to that college as conservative or liberal,” Stephens said. “They are a mix, just like anywhere.”

Stephens estimated 25 percent of the crowd was active in protesting Hedges’ speech.The size of the crowd and the number of protesters remains a matter of debate.

To listen to her reports, visit the WNIJ Web site at www.northernpublicradio.org.


WIFR, Channel 23’s Anchorman Alan Jones was also present at the commencement for his son’s graduation. He not only saw the entire ceremony, but videotaped four to five minutes of it, walking around the commencement grounds to get different angles. He said he stopped taping each time Hedges’ microphone was unplugged. Largely unaccredited, his footage was edited and shown on many national news channels.

Jones was kind enough to show the entire videotape last Wednesday night to this reporter, to help prepare for my appearance on Fox News Live the next day in Chicago. I told him that producers for Fox News Live on the Fox News Channel had invited me to appear. Jack Koenig of Impact Voters of America had initiated the contact and recommended me. I wanted to present very accurate information. Jones went home on his dinner hour and brought the tape to the TV station.

In a phone interview before he left to get the tape, Jones said, “I did hear some people shout, ‘Let him speak!’, but there were more people telling him to be quiet and sit down, than, ‘Let him speak!’.”

In that phone interview before the viewing of the tape at the station, Jones estimated that 20 to 25 percent of the audience turned their backs on Hedges or were very vocal in their objections to his speech. However, after reviewing the tape several times with this reporter, Jones revised his estimate to between 50 and 75 people who turned their backs on Hedges or were very vocal in their objections to his speech.

He said that in all the uproar, he had an initial larger impression that he lowered after reviewing the tape.

Koenig, who also coordinates what he characterizes as the “right of center” Expert Sources Bureau in addition to the “conservative” Impact Voters of America, said: “I was very impressed by your accurate reporting, even though those on the far right hammered you for doing so. It is my understanding the Fox News Channel will be contacting you again as the need dictates. Keep up the great work, Frank! A dose of reality is always welcome in a sea of turbulence.”

Teacher’s perspective

Janet Hoisington, a teacher in the public schools, was at the commencement to watch a foreign student she sponsored graduate.

She said the protests “started in the Master’s of Ed” section of graduates. “There was this kind of crazy woman. She began to scream at Hedges,” she said.

Hoisington estimated the protesters in the crowd of approximately 2,000 people at “less than 10 percent. Most people just sat and shook their heads. I want to be very specific that it was only a small percentage of the crowd. I am very disappointed in them. Most of the action was taking place in the back.

“People were screaming, and it kept going and going,” Hoisington said. “What scared people on the stage is that some people never stopped screaming. They couldn’t have heard what the man said past the first two sentences.

“It started so immediately, I have to wonder if there were plants.

“I saw one graduate leave,” Hoisington said. “People getting their bachelor’s were not involved. The really loud ones were mostly master’s graduates. It was so bad that it was hard to describe to people who weren’t there.”

Hoisington added, “According to my international students, they were shocked by this and thought they were back home” where free speech is difficult. “I have a hard time explaining this incident to my international students. It is freedom of speech–it is!

“When Clinton was president, it was OK to criticize; now it seems as if you’re un-American if you criticize,” Hoisington said. “This [Rockford College] should be a haven for intellectual differences—not the front line. I credit Dr. Pribbenow for getting such a qualified journalist.

“Personally, I think Dr. Pribbenow overestimated the good manners and intelligence of some of this group,” she said. “I get the feeling that Pribbenow was trying to bring the college back to an intellectual balance. Many of us stood up and cheered him [Hedges] at the end.”

Graduate’s perspective

Aimee Edmundson graduated from Rockford College during these painful ceremonies. She said she was about a quarter of the way back from the stage in the seated student body. She said there were protesters in front of and behind her, and among the guests on her far right.

Edmundson estimated that there was an even number of protesters and supporters, and said that a total of 50 to 70 very vocal protesters “would be very close to correct.”

She said: “I was very disappointed. He [Dr. Pribbenow] should have not allowed him [Hedges] to continue. From the beginning, this was apparent that this was something that was not going to turn out well for the speaker or the college.

“I think that the way that he [Dr. Pribbenow] said it was freedom of speech was inappropriate,” Edmundson added. “This was not the place for it. The time was inappropriate, especially for such a controversial speech.

“If they would have had him come for a different event, it would have gone very differently,” Edmundson said. “It was not appropriate because it was a graduation speech. It was more of a lecture. He didn’t speak to the graduates. It wasn’t an encouraging speech to the graduates, and that’s why I think it was inappropriate.”

Parent’s perspective

Jon McGinty’s daughter, Joanna, also was a graduate at the ceremonies (see her guest column on page A1).

He said, “At first I was for Hedges and his right to speak, but then my daughter was so upset that she left before getting her diploma. I followed her out to the parking lot and realized how inappropriate everything had become.

“I can’t excuse the protesters in the crowd, but Hedges had a captive audience,” McGinty said. “His speech was inflammatory. But the protesters ruined the graduation for all those who had worked so hard and should have had a wonderful day.”

The cost of tuition for four years at Rockford College is approximately $80,000.

McGinty estimated that 20 to 30 people were really disruptive, and that 12 students walked out. He also said that “well over half” of the audience was applauding Hedges’ speech and “were looking with dismay at the people who were disrupting it.”

Adjunct faculty member’s perspective

Michael Sullivan has taught economics at Rockford College for 10 years. He said: “I felt that his [Hedges’] view that the military seemed to be composed of poor boys from Mississippi and Alabama that couldn’t get jobs elsewhere was both ignorant and stereotypical. And if that was indicative of the facts upon which he based his opinions, then his opinions were unfounded and nothing I would put any credence in.

“I think the guy’s a crackpot,” said Sullivan, who served in the military for four years. “I’m from Pennsylvania, and I took a four-year sabbatical from college to serve in the military. Nowadays, they don’t want poor people without an education. They want people with college degrees. You get training in the military that you can’t get anywhere else. Where do you think all our nuclear engineers come from?”

Administrator’s perspective

When asked to estimate the number of people and protesters in attendance at the commencement, Bob Brown, vice president of advancement at Rockford College, said close to 300 were in the graduation ceremony, and each graduate had about two to three guests.

“It’s fair to say 1,500 to 2,000 people attended. I just can’t say how many were very vocal. That is very subjective. It was packed. There were people in lawn chairs and on blankets. It depends on where you were in the crowd. Different people had different viewpoints. I couldn’t tell you. I couldn’t even guess.”

College president’s perspective

Dr. Paul Pribbenow faces many challenges after the first commencement he has presided over, but he is by and large proud of his students.

Pribbenow said: “One of the things that has come across the desk is the turmoil was caused by our students. I would like to stress that I know of only two students who behaved inappropriately. One who chose to speak and never stopped speaking, and one who chose to come up on the stage. He walked over to the speaker and said he wanted to speak. Jim Whitehead, the chairman of our board, and I asked him to sit down, and he sat in Hedges’ seat. We talked to him while Hedges spoke.

“One gist of his concern was that this was getting dangerous,” Pribbenow said. “He wanted equal time for everyone. I just wanted to keep him uninvolved with Hedges.”

As to the number of students who were very vocal, Pribbenow said it was about 3 percent of a crowd he estimated at 2,000 people. Most of those 50 to 75 people, “from what I could tell, were guests of the graduates,” Pribbenow said. “The strongest ones were coming from the back where people were standing.”

In response to the question “Did you tell Chris Bowman [WNTA, AM radio talk show host] that half the crowd was protesting against Hedges?” Pribbenow said, “No, I did not. I don’t remember that discussion, except with other people about the number of people who were being boisterous.”

Concerning possible premeditated agitators in the audience, Pribbenow did not want to speculate, but he did say: “There were e-mails from people who thought there were plants there. We don’t have any confirmation or evidence. Somebody said somebody with the John Birch Society was there. This is all speculation and 1,000 e-mails later.

“We don’t know who unplugged the mic,” Pribbenow said. “The first time it was unplugged at the source in Fisher Chapel, past the sound board, that happened pretty fast, four or five minutes into his speech. I don’t know if someone didn’t want to hear him.

“The second time, I don’t know how it happened. It came back on pretty fast. I could tell because I could hear the wind in the mic,” Pribbenow said.

He said he couldn’t imagine that Hedges was able to deliver more than a third of his prepared text, since the speech that Pribbenow was aware that Hedges gave at John Carroll University was an hour long. Here, he said, Hedges was up about 18 minutes but only spoke at the maximum of 12 to 14 minutes.

Pribbenow also said he wished to make it very clear that he did not ask Hedges to stop speaking. After the mic was unplugged the second time, he said Hedges asked him if he wanted him to sit down or to bring his speech to a close. Then the mic began working, and Pribbenow asked Hedges what he wanted to do to close.

“Hedges went to the end of his speech and did the last few pages,” Pribbenow said.

In contrast, earlier in the day, Hedges was the college’s guest at a breakfast discussion.

Pribbenow noted: “We’d actually offered people the opportunity to read his book ahead of time. Faculty, staff and students had a very cordial breakfast and discussion with him. He felt warmly welcomed.

“Anyone who read the book [War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning], from all parts of the political spectrum, found his book very intellectually engaging,” Pribbenow said. “It presents war from a well-rounded, liberal arts perspective. He relates perspectives on war from the Iliad and the Odyssey, to Shakespeare, to Christian ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr.

“We teach our students to have respect and be civil in conversation with others who have other perspectives from theirs,” he said. “I’m very proud of our graduates, and all but a very small minority acted respectfully. Some turned their backs or left; that’s acceptable, but I’m very sorry they did. Most of the unrest came from our guests–people who were there to observe, not participate. Yet, I saw people standing and applauding throughout the crowd. We were happy that we were moving on.”

Accordingly, Pribbenow wished to make three broad points.

“First,” he said, “I wish to say how sorry I am that this was turned into a circus and rudeness. Our speaker was not very sensitive to his audience with his Preaching 101.

“Second,” he said, “I believe it is important that we have conversations about issues like war at commencement. Some disagree, and I respect their disagreement.

“Third,” he said, “That some suggest that this is part of my political agenda just boggles my mind. This college is an activist college. Look at the tradition of Jane Addams. You have to listen to all sides. We have had teach-ins on the war in Iraq.”

“As to the assertion that Chris Hedges was a personal friend of mine,” Pribbenow said, “Give me a break!”

“I’ve even received death threats,” Pribbenow said. “I’ve had to change my phone number, and the police have been here telling us how to handle the mail.”

Speaker’s perspective

As a matter of background, the following biography of Chris Hedges from the Rockford College Commencement program is instructive: New York Times reporter Chris Hedges has spent 15 years covering crises in many conflict-ridden locations including El Salvador, Nicaragua, Algeria, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, Iraq, Sarajevo and Kosovo. His debut book, War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, has been reviewed by The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times and is a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Hedges has also appeared on a variety of programs such as Charlie Rose, The News Hour, CBS Sunday Morning, Fresh Air, Talk of the Nation, CNN, and PBS’s Religion and Ethics. He has lectured at numerous colleges and institutions including Harvard, Yale, Columbia, University of California at Berkeley, The Council on Foreign Relations, Bates College, New York University, and Colgate University.

In War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning, Hedges addresses humanity’s love affair with war, offering a moving and thought-provoking perspective on the subject. He draws on the literature of combat from Homer to Shakespeare and from Erich Maria Remarque to Michael Herr. Hedges cautions that, even for the winners, war unleashes a litany of unforeseen consequences. During a time when the U.S. deals with the aftermath of the war in Iraq, the message of this book is particularly timely.

Hedges holds a B.A. in English Literature from Colgate University, a master of Divinity from Harvard University, where he was a Nieman Fellow during the academic year 1998-1999, and he currently teaches at Columbia University. He will be teaching at Princeton University in the fall of 2003.

Hedges was the Central American bureau chief for the Dallas Morning News and later the Middle East bureau chief for that newspaper, based in Jerusalem, from 1988 to 1990. He was the Middle East bureau chief for The New York Times, based in Cairo, from 1991 to 1995, and later the Balkans bureau chief for The Times from 1995 to 1998. He was a member of The New York Times team that won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting for the paper’s coverage of global terrorism, and he received the 2002 Amnesty International Global Award for Human Rights Journalism.

Amidst the protests at his Rockford College commencement address, Hedges said he was unaware of the number of people that were protesting his speech or the size of the crowd.

“It would be very hard to estimate the percentage protesting,” Hedges said. “I wasn’t focused on the crowd. I saw little pockets of it, but I was really concentrating on giving the address. Someone who was looking would be a better judge.”

Hedges was adamant that he had “never” experienced any incident similar to the events on May 17, adding: “I give talks all the time, usually at universities. How can you expect people to storm the stage? Nothing like this has happened. That’s true. I’m very tired of the whole thing,” he said.

He said he was unaware of any organized groups that might want to disrupt his speech, but he was aware of criticism of him on the Internet.

In response to those who call him a Palestinian apologist and say he “went native” in Egypt, Hedges said, “I believe that the Israelis should not be in Palestinian lands, but I think that Israel has a right to exist within the pre-1967 war borders. That creates a huge chasm between me and many Palestinians. I don’t think Israel belongs in Palestinian lands, but I firmly believe in Israel’s right to exist.”

As to his right to speak and how soon after the beginning of his speech the disruption began, he said, “It wasn’t long.”

In contrast, he said his treatment by staff, faculty and students at a discussion breakfast before his address was “very cordial, and people had read the book and were very thoughtful.”

Hedges said his impression of his experience at Rockford College was “very sad and unpleasant, not overall, just with those who chose to interpret the talk so negatively. It’s heartbreaking to see this in your own country. I’ve seen it in other countries. I’ve seen this kind of refusal and intolerance of other’s views—in wartime—in the Balkans, Gaza.”

When asked if he should have considered the mood of the country, and given some introduction to the audience, and recognized their achievement, Hedges said: “I came very focused on my speech. I really don’t want to address that.”

Enjoy The Rock River Times? Help spread the word!