This post is written by Alex Thomas (HIST ’16), Student Assistant in Special Collections and Archives. Alex reflects on another Cal Poly commencement, back in 1974. And it turns out some of the topics from forty years ago still ring true today.
“There is one thing I do know: the world has improved in many ways since I was on the receiving end of a graduation speech.”
So spoke Ronald Reagan, Governor of California, at Cal Poly. On June 15, 1974, Reagan delivered the 68th annual commencement address to 2,866 graduates. It was the first time a governor had spoken at Cal Poly’s commencement, and the first time tickets were required to attend. But in the weeks approaching the ceremony, the choice of speaker became highly controversial.
“Reagan’s Talk Eyed Dubiously” blared a Mustang Daily headline on June 7. President Robert E. Kennedy had had his doubts about whether Reagan would even accept the invitation, but after it was said and done he was “bracing for the protest reportedly formulating on campus.” He was quoted as being afraid of the reaction generated by students and parents.
The Senior Week Advisory Committee was responsible for the choice, and they stepped up to defend Kennedy after he was accused of picking Reagan for political reasons. Committee chair Bruce Snow emphasized that Reagan “wasn’t there for a campaign speech,” and committee advisor Bob Timone wrote a forceful letter to the Mustang Daily detailing the student-led process of picking a speaker.
A look into the archives reveals heated correspondence to University President Kennedy regarding the choice of Reagan. Rumors flew about students and teachers encouraging grads to picket the commencement. An anonymous letter from a “concerned senior” included a copy of a typewritten flyer being distributed around campus. It decried Reagan’s “consistently hostile” approach to higher education and advocated for students to leave their seats during the speech. A concerned staff member wrote to the president about graffiti in a men’s room that read “Reagan will be here in two weeks. Shoot to kill!” Reagan would survive being shot in an assassination attempt nearly seven years later in 1981.
In the end, nothing dramatic occurred. Reagan’s speech steered clear of politics almost entirely. The San Luis Obispo Telegram-Tribune reported that it was “relatively light,” and The Summer Mustang said he was “well-received by the crowd.” President Kennedy wrote to the governor, enclosing pictures and thanking him greatly for a successful address. He said that he’d received a multitude of letters and phone calls praising the choice of speaker. Reagan replied in kind, addressing Kennedy as “Bob” and telling him how much he enjoyed coming to Cal Poly.