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College president defends activist Riley Gaines being commencement speaker: Students should be ‘challenged’

Adrian College President Jeffrey Docking told Fox News Digital why he defended selecting activist and former University of Kentucky swimmer Riley Gaines as a commencement speaker amid backlash from both alumni and students.

“I think that higher-ed leaders need to hold strong right now and not cave in to people that want to crush free inquiry,” Docking told Fox News Digital.

Gaines, the host of Gaines for Girls with Riley Gaines and a former Division I athlete who competed against transgender swimmer Lia Thomas, gave the commencement at Adrian College in Michigan on Sunday. 

Gaines, a fierce critic of trans-athletes participating in women’s sports, sparked backlash from both the student body and alumni when they discovered her being billed to speak at their graduation ceremony. 

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Considering the large athlete demographic at Adrian, Docking told Fox News Digital that the issue of trans-athletes in sports is “pertinent” to Adrian College and that the school “believes strongly in Title IX” and respects the work that women put into sports.

“To think that those women either here or anywhere else could be subjected to coming out for the first day on the team and being told you don’t have a spot on this team … two or three trans athletes are taking your spot because they’re bigger, stronger, faster, better lung capacity than you. And so you’re out–Just does not seem right to me,” he said.

“We made a decision that we are going to bring her in to put this at the forefront,” Docking told Fox News Digital.

He explained further hat Adrian College previously invited a trans person to speak on campus in April 2022 on behalf of trans-rights.

“So, we’ve had it on both sides,” Docking said. “I do think that free inquiry has been pushed to the side in precisely those institutions, mainly higher education, that should be embracing it.” 

Michigan Advance first reported that when they asked how Gaines was selected to deliver the commencement address, Docking said the “choice was entirely his own as he thought the issue of transgender women in athletics was substantive.”

“She seems to be at the center of the vortex because of her swimming career at Kentucky, and when she realized that she was swimming against a trans athlete, was willing to go public and say, ‘This doesn’t seem fair to me,” and in speaking up she then became the face of that point of view, so she seemed like the most logical person to bring to talk about this,” Docking told Michigan Advance.

In the interview with Michigan Advance, Docking added that Adrian was “not endorsing” Gaines’ point of view on the trans-athlete issue when inviting her to speak.

“Secondly, I think on college campuses sometimes people debate topics like this. Other times topics like this are presented,” he said.

Docking objected to the notion that Gaines’ was too polarizing to speak at Adrian’s spring graduation ceremony.

“My feeling is with the amount of tuition that people pay to go to college, whether it’s here or somewhere else, that they should expect to be challenged, presented with thoughtful topics, things that need to be considered from the day they arrive until the day they leave,” Docking told Michigan Advance. “I don’t think that a commencement address is necessarily a time that should be solely focused on just making everybody feel comfortable. I think that making people feel uncomfortable during a commencement address is very consistent with what colleges should be doing.”

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Students and alumni at Adrian have since spoken out against Gaines and some have launched a petition to cancel her appearance at the college.

“Elevating this divisive and extremist symbol of hate with the largest megaphone and to the highest platform of an academic institution’s school year, their college graduation, as an alum, this is an embarrassing and hurtful decision. As a donor to the college, this is a bad investment decision,” R. Cole told the Michigan Advance. 

Adrian College graduate and trans-woman Leann McKee, said Gaines’ “has no message to deliver other than she hates trans people.”

“That’s her message,” McKee said. She explained further, “Would she give an uplifting speech? Could she do all the things that you expect a commencement speaker to do? She could, but so could any member of the faculty that’s already there. They don’t need to bring in a controversial figure.”

A group called “Safe Space” at Adrian College’s LGBTQ+ student organization launched a petition that garnered more than 400 signatures on the first day. According to Michigan Advance, the petition now has more than 1,600 signatures.

“According to the Human Rights Campaign, four out of ten LGBT students report being bullied at school (Human Rights Campaign). By inviting someone with controversial views on inclusivity, we risk further alienating these students and creating an environment that doesn’t respect their identities,” the petition states. “We urge Adrian College administration to reconsider their choice of speaker for this year’s commencement ceremony. Let us ensure our graduation is a celebration that respects all students’ identities and values inclusivity above all else.”

Docking told Fox News Digital that he hopes students can “take a sense of courage away from” Gaines’ speech.

“I mean, these are obviously young people–22, 23, 24–they have a lot of life ahead of them. There’s going to be a lot of very difficult issues that they’re confronted with throughout their life,” Docking said. “And I think that it’s important for them to think through, in a critical way, their position on those. And then do what she did, which is to speak out.”

Gaines sent to Fox News Digital a statement saying that “it’s so refreshing to see a college stand for free speech and expression.”

“My message to the graduates will be about the virtue of courage, the importance of faith, and the fundamental value of freedom,” Gaines told Fox News Digital. “These are traits and principles that we should all develop and live by. My presence isn’t meant to be divisive, but rather encouraging, inspiring, and congratulatory of the graduates. President Docking has been steadfast in his commitment to upholding the college’s mission statement of being committed to the pursuit of truth and dignity of all people.”

Docking co-authored a book called, “Crisis in Higher Education: A Plan to Save Small Liberal Arts Colleges in America” and is attributed to bolstering the school’s sports programs and doubling enrollment at Adrian College since he started working there. 

He has also been credited for tripling the college’s endowment.

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