GREENVILLE — President Bush on Saturday told more than 600 Furman University graduates to remain engaged citizens and bolster traditional values — all while 14 members of the university faculty stood in silent protest.
The faculty members wore white T-shirts that said “We Object,” a reflection on Bush’s leadership in the Iraq war and his environmental policy.
Only a few graduates made similar small statements: a white armband or a dove clutching an olive branch outlined on a mortarboard.
Bush was greeted warmly by the audience of more than 9,000, most of whom stood and applauded the president in Paladin Stadium.
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“I ask you to be citizens and not spectators and help to build a nation of virtue and character,” Bush said, noting what he felt was a growing spirit to serve.
This generation “can show timeless values can be applied in the modern world,” he said.
Bush also asked students not to overlook their faults.
“There’s no shame in recognizing your failings,” Bush said. “Tragedy comes when you fail to take responsibility for your weaknesses and surrender to them.”
Bush’s appearance at the graduation of 637 undergraduates and 14 master’s candidates spurred much debate since it was announced in early April.
Political science graduate Jason Reddick of Sumter said the talk about Bush's speech was much ado about nothing.
"It basically made my graduation," said Reddick said. Referring to the protesting faculty, he said: "I didn't even know they were there."
Ellen Lightsey of Columbia graduated with a degree in religion. She was glad Bush avoided a political speech. "He focused on community service and tried to stay away from divisive issues," Lightsey said.
About 200 faculty and students soon after signed a letter criticizing Bush’s handling of the Iraq war and environmental issues. In response, more than 700 members of the Furman community, about half of them students, signed a letter asking that professors not be allowed to skip the ceremony in protest.
The debate spilled over in letters to the editor in the local newspaper, as well as the American flags and signs welcoming the president held by hundreds lining the route to campus. On campus, about 30 protesters greeted the president.
Furman spokesman Vince Moore said that 31 of the 230 full-time faculty said they would not attend the ceremony.
Moore said that 202 full- and part-time faculty did attend the speech, and that there would be no action taken against those who protested Bush at the ceremony or who skipped graduation.
“There’ll be no repercussions,” Moore said. “At a university, that’s what you encourage.”
Bush alluded to the debate about his visit, but peppered his speech with relaxed humor. Bush noted both he and his father, then vice president, had given commencement speeches at the school 25 years apart. “That’s a great step forward for the Bush family, a great step backward for your English department.”
This is the first time a sitting president has visited Furman’s campus, Moore said.
Prior to January’s presidential primaries, candidates Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee all came to campus. So did former president Bill Clinton and controversial political pundits James Carville and Anne Coulter.
“Coping with difference has always been an essential human skill — and a primary goal of a liberal education,” Furman University president David Shi told students.
“The humility embedded in our imperfection should prompt us, at least occasionally, to reassess our dogmas, harness our arrogance and slow our keystroke rush to judgment.”