Controversial Founders’ Day speaker affects alumni opinions of Mercer

The decision to host lawyer Jay Sekulow as the 2018 Founders’ Day keynote speaker on Feb. 7 has been controversial not only among current students, but among alumni as well. Many say that the choice has affected their opinion of Mercer.

Those who support Sekulow said that he stands for ideals that align with Mercer’s traditions and values, while the opposition cites his reputation for discriminating against various minority groups.

An online petition to revoke Sekulow’s invitation was allegedly created by a group called Mercer Alumni for Human Dignity and circulated among alumni on social media.

The petition amassed over 600 signatures and called for Sekulow’s removal based on a “well-documented history of homophobia, racism, nationalism and anti-Muslim bigotry throughout his career.”

Nora Darling is one alumna who signed the petition.

“I was upset when I first learned that Sekulow was chosen to be honored as the speaker at Founder’s Day, and was even more shocked when I saw some students defending the choice,” Darling said in a Facebook message.

She said there is a difference between silencing someone with a controversial opinion and choosing not to have them speak at an important heritage event.

“The fact that many Mercer students couldn’t recognize that Mr. Sekulow has devoted his career to silencing the most marginalized of our society was particularly upsetting,” Darling wrote.

Darling also said while the administration’s choice to invite Sekulow did not surprise her, it did make her less likely to support Mercer.

“I am not less likely to visit campus―the place itself holds significant memories of a transformative time for me―but I won’t endorse [an] institution with my financial support that promotes values like Mr. Sekulow’s by inviting him to be the speaker for such a prominent event,” she wrote.

Alumnus Jordan Price also graduated in 2017 and opposes Sekulow, but he said that the decision to host him as the Founders’ Day speaker will not affect his opinion of Mercer as an institution.

“Even though I disagree with the decision, I wouldn’t be in law school at UGA right now without the support, encouragement and education I received there. Mercer will always be my alma mater and my home,” he wrote in a Facebook message.

Price also disagrees with the many students who have blamed the Student Government Association for Sekulow’s invitation. Price was involved with SGA throughout his four years at Mercer, serving one term as a student correspondent for the Heritage Life Committee and two terms as an Executive member.

He commented on a Cluster Facebook post about Freshman Class President Joseph Muldrew’s opinion article to say that SGA does not have much power regarding event speakers.

“The SGA President actually has relatively little involvement in the decision,” Price wrote. “All responsibilities associated with Founders’ Day planning belong to the Heritage Life Committee. They usually come up with a short list of candidates, then collaborate with the Underwood administration on narrowing the options. Ultimately, the administration has the final say on who is invited.”

Another article in this issue of the Cluster explains how the process of a Founders’ Day speaker is chosen.

“The notion in Senator Muldrew’s article that this was a decision President Buckner made herself and bullied SGA into going along with is just plain wrong,” Price said via Facebook Messenger. “Obviously I didn’t witness the decision myself, but while that makes a pretty compelling narrative, that’s just not reflective of how SGA works.”

Although Price said he will continue to support Mercer, some alumni have expressed that Sekulow’s invitation to campus affects their willingness to donate to the school.

Sam Henderson commented directly on Muldrew’s article. He wrote that he loved Mercer and the experiences he had as an undergraduate and fraternity member, but will no longer support Mercer in light of the decision to host Sekulow.

“As a graduate from Mercer in 1998 and a gay man who came out my junior year at Mercer,” Henderson wrote, “rest assured I will never, ever support a Mercer event or support the school in any fashion.”

Henderson could not be reached for further comment.

Director of Annual Giving Andy Carter has been involved with Phonathon, a service through which student workers call alumni to ask for donations, for 10 years.

Carter said in a written statement that the decision to invite Sekulow has affected some alumni responses through Phonathon.

“While we don’t keep count of the number of complaints, I can confirm that there have been a handful of concerns expressed from donors over the Founders’ Day speaker, but not any more than we typically get when we host those that might be considered high profile or controversial,” he said in an email.

Among the backlash regarding Sekulow, other alumni have celebrated the choice. Many who support him say that he upholds Mercer’s values, both secular and religious.

Alumna Abigail Hundley commented on Muldrew’s article and referred to Mercer’s mission as an institution of higher learning.

As a proud and recent alumni [sic], I wish that I had the opportunity to hear from Jay Sekulow,” she wrote in her comment. “The Mercer Mission Statement is ‘to teach, to learn, to create, to discover, to inspire, to empower and to serve.’ There is no reason to believe that there is not much that Mr. Sekulow has to teach Mercerians or that there is nothing inspiring about his efforts in the legal field.”

Kristi Henderson Carden, class of 1994, commented on a University Facebook post that shared a link to a press release announcing Sekulow as this year’s speaker.

Carden, who studied Communications and Sociology at Mercer, emphasized that the school’s Christian heritage is very important to her. She said, in her opinion, Sekulow aligns with these religious values.

“This is excellent news,” she wrote in her comment. “I’m so happy that my alma mater is representing their Christian roots. This man is solid.”

She later referenced a page on the Mercer website explaining that although Mercer is no longer officially affiliated with the Baptist tradition, it “remains committed to an educational environment that embraces the historic Baptist principles of intellectual and religious freedom.”

Regarding this statement, Carden said, “I can not see how Mr. Sekulow’s career has diverted from Mercer’s value statement and am supportive of him being recognized as an esteemed Mercer Alumni [sic], despite his controversial platforms.”

Carden also spoke to Sekulow’s qualifications as a double-Bear and accomplished graduate in her comment. She agreed with Hundley and other alumni that Sekulow represents the kind of post-collegiate success that should be celebrated and that hearing opposing viewpoints is essential to the college experience.

“It is my opinion that differing viewpoints and the ability to represent them is what brings balance to our culture,” she wrote. “Despite the far-reaching vitriol against Mr. Sekulow, there is evidence of his accomplishments and passion to uphold the Constitution as he interprets it through his worldview, and is representative of many Americans. This is part of healthy legal discourse within our government.”