Student starts petition to replace Rauner as keynote speaker, exceeds 2,000 signatures

By Luke Nozicka, @lukenozicka

Following the news that Gov. Bruce Rauner will be one of three keynote speakers at this year’s May graduation, a student created a petition asking the university’s administration to replace him.

“Choosing him as a keynote speaker is a slap in the face to SIU students and faculty who already deal with underfunded programs and facilities,” according to the petition page, which was started by Emily Neal, a senior from Paducah, Ky., studying radio, television and digital media. “How can anyone be expected to celebrate progress when our keynote speaker is someone who only intends to set us back?”

Rauner, who is proposing a 32 percent cut to higher education, will speak at the 1:30 p.m. ceremony — for students in the College of Business and the College of Education and Human Services — on May 16.


As of 5 p.m. Monday, the petition had more than 2,000 supporters. Neal, who is graduating in May, said she felt offended and insulted when she heard the news that Rauner would be a keynote speaker.

“I’m appalled that SIU would think this is a good idea,” she said. “I’m not opposed to Bruce Rauner coming to our community to speak with us or coming to see the impact higher education has on our community… I just think that graduation is a completely inappropriate time to be doing it and I’m not alone in that.”

Neal said if she is not contacted by someone from the university by Monday, she plans to talk with and show administrators the petition. She said while nothing is concrete, she has heard people are considering protesting the decision.

“I just don’t see why SIU would choose a keynote speaker that is going to be a complete distraction to the entire graduation ceremony,” Neal said during a phone interview Friday. “The focus is supposed to be on the students. It’s not supposed to be on whether we’re happy with the keynote speaker or when we’re going to protest the keynote speaker.” 

The irony of the governor addressing a graduating class amid the threat of state budget cuts is not lost on the students and faculty of SIU, and some reacted on Twitter in light of the news.

Rae Goldsmith, SIU’s spokeswoman, said President Randy Dunn invited Rauner to talk at graduation in January, before his budget address in February. 

“We knew the invitation would raise concerns among some and be welcomed by others,” Goldsmith said during a phone interview Wednesday. “We really believe it’s an important way for the governor to come to southern Illinois to get to see what goes on here and it has the potential to help us build a positive relationship.”


Rauner’s proposed budget, which needs to pass the General Assembly, will cut $62 million from SIU’s system, including $44 million from the Carbondale campus.

Neal said there are many other people SIU could have chosen to speak at commencement. 

“It’s drastically different than a politician who plans to cut our budget back to the level it would have been at in the ’85-’86 school year,” she said. “It’s very different from a politician who has intentions for our state and specifically our school that are going to be devastating.”

Rauner is not being paid to speak at commencement. Last year’s speaker, Ali Wentworth — the actress and producer who is married to George Stephanopoulos, a Good Morning America anchor — was paid $40,000 to speak at all three ceremonies. 

Jim Edgar, the 38th governor of Illinois, will speak at the 9 a.m. ceremony, and Bill Norwood, SIU’s first black quarterback who graduated in 1959, will speak at the 5:30 p.m. one. 

“I’m not sure how we can celebrate a day of our achievements with somebody who doesn’t seem to have our best interest in mind,” Neal said.

This story will be updated as more information becomes available. 

Luke Nozicka can be reached at [email protected]