Adams State Commencement Speaker Strikes the Wrong Message for an HSI


Editor’s Note: this commentary is authored by a graduating senior at Adams State University.

On Saturday December 17th, 2016, I, along with 155 other students, celebrated my graduation from Adams State University. I was first recruited as an athlete, but later found solace in many groups on campus. Despite claims that Alamosa was boring and had nothing to offer, I was deeply invested in the town and eager to make the most of the magic it possessed. I worked for a local non-profit for four years. My partner is a native of the San Luis Valley. I thought of Alamosa as my home and had so much pride to have graduated from a place that doesn’t keep many for as long as I attended. I had never felt more unsupported by my campus than the day of my graduation.

After the initial introductory and student speeches to the graduating class, ASU President Beverlee McClure took the stage for about two minutes to introduce the keynote speaker, Mr. Stan Hilky, the Executive Director of Colorado Department of Public Safety. Mr.Hilky began by warning of “cop references” throughout his speech, but encouraged the audience to keep in mind his membership of Governor Hickenlooper’s cabinet and his thirty year service as a police officer, as if to imply anything untactful said from there on out could be excused because he held offices of admirable power. Mr. Hilky proceeded to describe that the material in his speech was written from the point of view of someone involved in the criminal justice system. I wish I had realized sooner that his allusions were warnings that the content of his speech was not written to match this graduation ceremony.

Mr. Hilky’s idea of propelling the importance of higher education was essentially pleading to the new graduates that the criminal justice system needed help. He outlined societal issues within the criminal justice system, including mass incarceration, and minority over-representation in the prison population. He implored the graduating class to work in the criminal justice system and his statements betrayed a complete ignorance of the prison-industrial complex, including that the perpetual fear of people of color has resulted in the disproportionate mass incarceration of African-American and Latinos. These statistics were cited by Mr. Hilky himself as an ongoing problem for which new graduates should solve.

With Adams State supposedly being a Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI), it was problematic and uncomfortable to listen to a white male within a high position of law enforcement plead to a student population (that is largely people of color) to fix a criminal justice system of which their families may have fallen victim for generations – and often times through no fault of their own.

Rather than celebrating the achievements of the diverse graduating class in front of him, Mr. Hilky used his platform to advocate for change in a system that had little to no affiliation with college graduation. His words were isolating and subtly racist, implying now that we have reached the accomplishment of higher education, our primary duty should be to problem-solve solutions to the mass incarceration of our racial counterparts. In other words: “we broke it, now you must fix it.” Was this a commencement speech or a condescending lecture brought to us by a spokesperson for systemic oppression?

Furthermore, it was disheartening and embarrassing to know that the President of Adams State thought graduation was the time and place for a speech of this caliber. One must wonder: was President McClure or the Board of Trustees aware of this speech or its content? Either they did not know and should have or they knowingly let someone take the stage and express these sentiments at the commencement ceremony of a Hispanic Serving Institution. In either case, this is a troubling situation.

I wanted to attend graduation and to be celebrated, not reminded of the oppression I could have easily fallen victim to along the way. It seemed that the ASU fall 2016 commencement ceremony was more about praising the work done by law enforcement and how law enforcement professions are what we should aspire to as college graduates because that is how we can make the largest impact on our respective communities. This message assumes that a career in law enforcement is the highest honor, and I beg to differ.

Rather than sharing how Adams State can become a proponent for change within minority-predominant areas like the San Luis Valley, the message was instead that it was up to college-educated people of color to implement change on their own. This message relinquished all responsibility of the current criminal justice system in pushing people of color away from higher education.

It is upsetting to think that President McClure may agree with Mr. Hilky and does not see her responsibility in maintaining a strong presence of people of color on campus. She claimed in a recent campus message that ASU was a safe space, but Mr. Hilky’s commencement speech runs contrary to that claim for many minority student populations. Considering the recent drops in enrollment, as well as a lack of racial diversity among faculty and staff, it is obvious that President McClure is ignorant to the needs of the students sitting patiently in front of her and her tone deaf choice of graduation speaker only made that more clear.