A professor at Eastern Carolina University (ECU) recently made national news by asking his students not to thank God in personal statements to be read at graduation. Eli Hvastkovs, an assistant professor of chemistry at ECU, instructed his students to prepare a 35-word personal statement to be read at the departmental graduation ceremony. He said the statement should detail future plans or thank someone who was influential in the student’s education. However, Professor Hvastkovs asked his students not to thank God in their statements. According to Business Insider, Professor Hvastkovs told his students in an email he was “sorry about this” but he didn’t “want to have to outline the reasons why.” He defended the restriction by stating the ceremony was purely educational, not religious, and thanking God would therefore be inappropriate.
Professor Hvastkovs has certainly been in the spotlight since he made the announcement on May 1, and ECU’s Provost, Marilyn Sheerer, quickly intervened in the matter. She let the students know they were welcome to mention God if they wished. However, the issue brought up by Professor Hvastkovs’s proposed ban is a complicated one. While you have to consider the students’ freedom to thank whom they want, the issue at hand is a bit more involved than that.
Religion is Complicated
ECU’s chemistry department does have a point in not wanting there to be too many overt references to Christianity in a commencement ceremony. As Professor Hvastkovs mentions, graduation should be primarily an academic ceremony, not a religious one. Despite the fact that there are many people of different beliefs in our country, many are obsessed with making America a primarily Christian nation. It’s worth noting that the phrase “under God” was only added to the Pledge of Allegiance in the 1950s during the red scare. Our country has no official religion or creed despite what some on the political right may think. By asking his students to leave out God in their speeches, Professor Hvastkovs was probably trying to make the graduation ceremony more accommodating to people of all beliefs.
The Statements Aren’t Exactly Speeches
Professor Hvastkovs’s rebuttal came a few days after the initial email. In a statement released to Pirate Radio 1250 & 930 (WGHB / WDLX), he brought a little more clarity to the situation. He said it was important to recognize the graduating students’ statements were not strictly speeches. Rather, they were brief statements meant to be read by a faculty member as each student received his or her diploma.
Last year was the first year the ECU chemistry department allowed students to submit personal statements. Prior to then, faculty members had just read the students’ name when they handed out the diplomas. Last year’s statements were overly long and thanked a laundry list of people, so Professor Hvastkovs imposed the 35-word restriction. He had also received some feedback that faculty members were uncomfortable with thanking God on students’ behalf, hence the ban on God in the statements. Professor Hvastkovs explained the students’ freedom of speech wasn’t exactly infringed upon, because wouldn’t be the ones reading the statements.
A Lesson in Communication
Professor Hvastkovs admitted his email was poorly worded and misleading, and he takes full responsibility for the incident. He said he actually thought the God ban wouldn’t be a big issue, since the students wouldn’t be the ones saying the words. Contrary to what sites like Fox News suggest, Professor Hvastkovs is not an atheist and he regularly attends church in town.
The incident at ECU emphasizes just how important it is to have open communication with the people around you. Much of the problem came from vague wording in Professor Hvastkovs’s email. As stated above, he said he didn’t “want to have to outline the reasons why” the ban was proposed. If he did, though, it could have saved a lot of time and energy. Chances are some of the students may have understood why the faculty would feel uncomfortable thanking God for them. The media also likely wouldn’t have blown the incident as out of proportion as they did. In many of the early articles covering the incident, it did sound as if all students would be giving speeches but weren’t allowed to mention God.
If faculty really were uncomfortable with giving thanks on students’ behalf, perhaps a more diplomatic solution would be to have students just state their future plans—for example if they were going to med school, working in trade occupations or interning at a lab. In any case, this all goes to show that good communication is imperative for understanding others and functioning in society.
What do you think about Professor Hvastkovs’s email and response?