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Marist Band Inauguration Performance Controversy Plays On

Courtesy of Marist Band/Marist College

As controversy continues over plans for the Marist College band to perform at the presidential inauguration of Donald Trump, both sides are maintaining their positions. Now the former college president weighs in.

The Marist College band has been selected to perform at the presidential inauguration January 20 after applying to do so in spring of 2016. And there are at least two petitions concerning the college’s decision to accept the invitation. Both are on change.org. One supports the band’s intention to perform and says “Let the Marist Band play.” The other opposes the decision, and asks the college to decline the invitation. Jennifer Hoffman is a Marist College alumna who started the petition calling on the band to sit out the inauguration.

“Well I’d like to say first that I respect their decision. I’ve looked over the memo that they released to the community and they do make some good points,” Hoffman says. “What I would want to emphasize is that a lot of the community doesn’t agree with what they’re doing. And we’re all very concerned about what this means for the Marist name, especially alumni. We take a great deal of pride in our degrees. They hang on the walls in our offices, in our homes. We always speak so proudly of our experience at Marist.”

The controversy has escalated via social media. On Wednesday, Marist President David Yellen, who took the reins July 1, 2016, issued a memo. It reads, in part, quote, “A college community composed of students, faculty, staff, alumni, and trustees holding a wide range of political views cannot itself be a political actor by staking a claim to any one position. As you may recall, last spring the College hosted a campaign event for Senator Bernie Sanders, and we were clear that this did not constitute an endorsement. Neither does participating in the ritual of the United States' peaceful transition of power constitute a political statement.” End quote.  Former Marist College President Dennis Murray served from 1979 to 2016.

“That is a difficult issue because the college decided to participate in the inaugural parade virtually last year while I was still president. We had no idea who was going to be elected president,” Murray says. “And I think because of the fact that the inauguration is a bipartisan effort — in fact, Jimmy Carter’s going to attend, President Clinton and Hillary Clinton are going to attend, the Bushes, I understand, are going to attend — we felt that to decide because some people don’t like who was elected that we should not participate was wrong.”

Murray points out that U.S. Senator Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, sits on the committee overseeing the inauguration. Brianna Coyle is a Marist student who started the “Let the Marist Band Play” petition. She says it is the opportunity of a lifetime for the band members. She writes, in part, quote, “Stop letting this hate and garbage ruin these kids’ opportunity. “ End quote. Hoffman argues that the opportunity to play is weighed down.

“And we are very concerned about what that Marist name is going to mean as time goes on because they can continue to say that this has nothing to do with politics, that they’re just giving the kids a chance to experience the inauguration and perform,” Hoffman says. “But it’s quite obvious that outside of… everywhere else people don’t see this as just letting the kids play.”

Hoffman and others who support her petition say they are not politically motivated. Rather, they are concerned about values.

“Just denounce Trump’s hateful rhetoric. If you’re going to go forward and participate in this, make it abundantly clear that you do not support the things Trump has said. It has nothing to do with his political platform,” says Hoffman. “It’s about mocking disabled people. It’s about being a racist, being sexist, making crude comments about women.”

Murray, who in July became President Emeritus and Professor of Public Policy at Poughkeepsie-based Marist, speaks to the opponents’ concern about values versus politics.

“Well that the great thing about our democracy and I love our democracy. And having been a president for 37 years, believe me, I’ve heard every issue discussed and different sides of every issue,” says Murray. “And I applaud those people who disagree that are expressing their opinions and their dislike but colleges and universities I don’t think should be making partisan, political decisions. That’s not our role. Our role is to provide a forum for discussion, for debate, and then hopefully the best ideas through an open discussion will prevail.”

Yellen, in his memo to the community, reiterates the college’s commitment to its core values. He also emphasizes that no Marist band or spirit corps member is being pressured or forced to participate in the inauguration. He says some students have chosen to opt out for a variety of reasons, and this is perfectly fine.    

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