A conservative student group at Furman University is speaking out against faculty members and students who signed a petition opposing a visit from President George Bush and his handling of the war in Iraq and environmental issues.
The group, Conservative Students for a Better Tomorrow, was launched two years ago by juniors Christopher Mills and Jason Novak, both 2005 Wando High School graduates.
Mills said Wednesday that in response to the group that is opposing plans for the president to deliver the school's commencement speech, his organization has gathered nearly 600 signatures, more than half from students, backing the graduating seniors and the Bush visit. Many students, he said, were disappointed that a group largely comprising faculty members was "airing its political objections."
The opposition, he said, takes the focus off graduating seniors on one of the most important days of their lives. "We hoped they would put professionalism above this publicity stunt," he said.
The group opposed to the visit gathered more than 220 signatures on a petition called "(W)e Object" that was posted on the university's Web site this month and will remain through graduation, Furman spokesman Vince Moore said.
About half of the university's full-time faculty members signed it, Moore said. But fewer than half of the signatures on the petition came from students.
Mills said his group wants its petition posted on the school's Web site alongside the "(W)e Object" petition. It also wants the university to require all faculty members to attend commencement, he said.
Some faculty members have asked to be excused from the ceremony calling themselves "conscientious objectors," he said.
Moore said Mills' group's petition soon is likely to be posted on the university's site.
But, he said, faculty members who don't want to attend the ceremony will be excused. They are not contractually obligated to attend, he said. Every year, some faculty members ask to be excused from commencement exercises, he said. "They always are," he added.
Moore said the controversy hasn't created a large divide on campus. But it's generated a lot of discussion, "which is good," he said.
Moore also said the university believes in "the idea of dissent and free speech." But if people arrive to protest Bush's visit on commencement day, May 31, the university will require them to remain in a designated spot on the campus.
Mills said he knows it represents a role reversal for a group of students to attempt to curtail faculty protest. But that's not unusual at Furman, he said. He said the university has a fairly liberal faculty while most students come from the largely conservative Southeast.