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College fields outrage over ‘controversial’ conservative commencement speaker Riley Gaines

But some female student athletes said they support the selection

Following the announcement of a “controversial” leading conservative speaker for its commencement address, Adrian College has faced backlash from pro-LBGTQ+ students and alumni demanding officials disinvite the speaker.

The small, private Michigan liberal arts university shared that Riley Gaines would headline its May 5 graduation ceremony.

Gaines is a former champion NCAA swimmer who has become a leading voice in protecting women’s sports from biological male athletes who identify as women.

The March 11 announcement has prompted opposition from some students and alumni, with calls for administrators to disinvite her.

Safe Place, a pro-LBGTQ+ student organization at the college, launched a petition against Gaines’ presence on campus and has amassed over 1,600 signatures as of Wednesday.

“This decision is not only inappropriate but also discredits the graduates who may be in alliance with or a part of the LGBTQIA+ community,” the petition reads.

Signers argue that commencement should be an “inclusive” event that “celebrates everyone,” and some Adrian College students echoed those sentiments.

“Commencement is not the place for politics,” Kady Stoddard, an Adrian College sophomore, told the Detroit News.

Another student, Taylor Yount, who is set to graduate in May, told the newspaper that having Gaines as a commencement speaker “seems to take away from the graduates.”

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, an organization committed to protecting free speech, urged Adrian College to withstand the calls to disinvite Gaines from its campus.

“We urge universities to resist actually disinviting the speaker because of controversial speech, because we feel that students can learn from opposing viewpoints,” Zachary Greenberg, a senior program officer at FIRE, told The College Fix in a phone interview Tuesday.

Additionally, not all students are opposed to having Gaines as the university’s commencement speaker. Multiple female student-athletes at Adrian College said they are very excited to hear from Gaines at their spring commencement.

“Riley Gaines is such a strong woman who is a voice for all women in sports,” Ava Wolfe, a member of Adrain College’s NCAA softball team, told The College Fix. “Her courage to stand up for what she believes in is something incredible, and we should celebrate this.”

Ashley Myers, one of Wolfe’s teammates, told The College Fix that Gaines “is the voice us female athletes needs.”

“I think what she is doing takes so much courage and strength,” Myers said. “I’m glad she continues to stay true to herself no matter whose opinion or beliefs stand in her way.”

In its announcement, Adrian College President Jeffrey Docking stated the decision to have Gaines headline commencement represents “the purpose of universities — to engage in civil discourse of controversial issues.”

“This is an important issue that should be discussed at colleges and universities throughout the United States,” Docking said. “Adrian College has never shied away from presenting and debating substantive disagreements on campus.

FIRE’s Greenberg agrees.

“Students can learn from her experience and what she says,” Greenberg told The Fix. “These commencement speakers are designed to impart wisdom upon students. Regardless of who you are or what your background is, there’s always an opportunity to learn from that.”

Adrian College, Safe Place and Gaines did not respond to requests for comment.

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About the Author
Blake Mauro -- Clemson University