UNCW graduation speaker’s ‘sexist’ comments anger audience

Updated: May. 15, 2019 at 3:57 PM EDT
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WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - Thousands of students graduated from the University of North Carolina Wilmington over the weekend, and some former students, parents, and faculty members were left disappointed by a speech made during one ceremony.

Thomas Fetzer, a member of the UNC Board of Governors, was expected to deliver greetings to the Class of 2019 on behalf of the board.

In emails obtained from the university, WECT learned Fetzer went off script.

Christina Logan, director of UNCW Transition Programs, responded to several faculty emails confirming Fetzer did not read the comments prepared for him by the UNCW Office of University Relations.

Those comments were expected to read:

"Good afternoon. I am honored to be here today on behalf of the UNC Board of Governors. Please accept my congratulations on behalf of Chairman Harry Smith Jr., UNC System President Bill Roper, and the entire Board.

We are very impressed with this university and all that you have achieved as a campus community. We know it has been a challenging year, but we also know that you accomplished great things as well. UNCW launched a nanosatellite into orbit, received a new designation as a “Doctoral University: High Research Activity” institution and signed many partnership agreements with community colleges, which will help even more students enjoy the UNCW experience in the years to come.

The entire Board admired how this university responded to Hurricane Florence. You focused not only on yourselves and this campus, but also on the surrounding community. You demonstrated true Seahawk spirit, and you should all be proud of yourselves.

Graduates, the UNC System salutes your hard work, applauds your accomplishments and looks forward to your contributions to our state and our nation. Congratulations and best wishes for the future!"

Instead of presenting those four sentences, Fetzer spoke for more than six minutes on topics including continuing education, personal advice on finances, and technology.

His entire speech can be viewed here, beginning at 23:03, with the comments some found inappropriate beginning at 26:32.

In that portion of the speech, Fetzer was talking about personal finances and said:

“Let me just cut to the chase young ladies, there are only two things in this world you should borrow money for. Your continuing education and a house. Pay cash for everything else because it’s a depreciating asset and you will end up owing more than it is worth. And that is the road to ruin. Those are the parents clapping. Young men, I will add one thing to the list for which you may borrow money. A diamond ring. Because it will appreciate, and so will she.”

After Saturday’s ceremony, at least three faculty members who attended the ceremony emailed Logan with their concerns.

One, emailed Logan to find out if the speech Fetzer gave was vetted.

Part of that email read:

“I have heard from several students and parents who were both disappointed and offended by the Board of Governor’s representative, Mr. Fetzer’s long and sexist speech at graduation. Traditionally this speech has just been a “greeting” of a few sentences. Mr. Fetzer took the position of keynote speaker, much of his content was unnecessary, some of it entirely inappropriate. To advise students “Gentleman... you must invest in a diamond for your lady” was something right out of 1965...to say it was insulting to women who have just received their degree is an understatement.”

She went on to write, “Thousands of parents, and more importantly students, heard this speech. It does not reflect the mission of UNCW. It was nothing less than an embarrassment.”

UNCW graduate Taylor Sauls said she found the speech insulting.

“I was just really annoyed with the whole tone of the speech. It seemed really patronizing and I didn’t feel like my graduation was a time to be lectured or to kind of be spoken down to. I appreciate any advice of course, but really, the tone. It is 2019 and this is not the time for archaic gender stereotypes and I did not appreciate the implication at my graduation that I’m somehow worse with money or would be more inclined to take out loans for frivolous things than my male counterparts. Graduation day, I worked just as hard as they did to get there and I feel I’m just as capable in any way,” Sauls said.

In a statement emailed to WECT Wednesday afternoon, Fetzer said "the speech is on video and people can watch it for themselves and I would be amazed if anybody thought it was controversial.”

Two other professors also echoed concerns in response to the professor’s initial email.

“I would like to echo [her] concerns about the speech given by Mr. Fetzer on Saturday. It was, to say the least, disappointing, at the worst, belittling and denigrating to swaths of our population and counter to UNCW’s purported commitment to honoring inclusion and all peoples,” wrote a professor from a separate department.

A third professor responded to the email writing, “Thank you... for articulating a reaction that I am sure was widely shared. I disagree with only one part of your comments: I’d say the speech was right out of 1865. Whatever its vintage, it was completely inappropriate.”

Logan responded to these emails, writing, “Mr. Fetzer went off-script and did not read the prepared remarks. I appreciate and understand your concerns and have shared these with the Provost and the Chancellor.”

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