At least two universities with renowned film industry training programs — Boston University and Emerson College — have recruited commencement speakers from the C-suites of various major film studios — despite the ongoing disputes between those studios and the writer's union, for which many of those graduating students will likely work.
Boston University just announced that David Zaslav, CEO of Warner Bros. Discovery, would be the featured speaker at the university's 2023 commencement ceremony on Sunday, March 21. My wife is a BU alum, and was the first to share the news with me; she suggested that we bring our toddler to participate in his first protest.
Upon reading the news, I shook my head in shame and disappointment. This decision felt so shockingly tone-deaf that it's hard to interpret it as anything other than a spit in the face of hard-working BU graduates in LA (including several friends of mine). Indeed, the WGA, agreed, saying in a statement:
Writers Guild members are on strike because companies, including Warner Bros. Discovery, refused to guarantee any level of weekly employment in episodic television, attempted to pivot late night writers to a day rate, stonewalled on free work on script revisions for screenwriters, and refused to even discuss our proposal on the existential threat AI poses to all writers. Boston University should not give voice to someone who wants to destroy their students ability to build a career in the film and television industry.
Look, I understand that universities are businesses, and that there are lots of high-end donors to appease. Hell, I even sat in on some of the board meetings where these sorts of decisions are made. I used to be the regional chair for young alumni network of my own alma mater, Emerson College. Though not necessarily a high-donor board member, I was still invited into the room for a lot of those difficult conversations, where I had well-intentioned people grappling with that delicate balance between the appeasing the egos of wealthy donors, and acquiescing to the often righteously-angered demands of the student body, whom — one would think — would be the university's main priority.
Surely, the people I knew from those meetings at Emerson … they couldn't make the same poor choices, could they?
Lo and behold, I closed out the message from my wife, opened Twitter, and immediately learned that my own alma mater was also scabbing. In an abrupt, last-minute announcement, Emerson revealed that Pamela Abdy — also of the Warner Brothers' C-suite, who was handpicked by Zaslav to specifically lead the corporation's film group — would be the speaker at the college's commencement.
A graduate classmate of mine, who is now on the WGA board, shared a thread on Twitter about the news.
She added, in a petition:
With the potential of a strike looming for months now and with WGA alumni on the streets picketing outside studios for their livelihoods, we were incredibly frustrated by Emerson's, frankly, insulting choice of a major studio CEO as its 2023 commencement speaker. That, paired with Emerson's lack of statement of solidarity with the WGA, and its refusal to sanction or actively participate in an upcoming alumni picket event, sends the collective message that Emerson College is anti-union, and anti-labor.
Emerson has no qualms heralding its high-profile WGA alumni during Oscars and Emmys season, when our association with the college has the most cache. And yet now, in our time of need, our alma mater's support is glaringly lacking.
Two Warner Brothers' executives in two consecutive weekends? That's quite a coincidental slap-in-the-face to the students who just paid you over $200,000 for a degree in the industry that you're scabbing for. Maybe you should think about that when your young alumni refuse to donate back to the college, or get involved in any institutionally-organized networking or mentorship programs.
I can begrudgingly understand these colleges staying silent on the subject of labor, trying to appease both sides. I don't like it, but I recognize that it's a thing that happens. But giving a platform to these executives so they can spew their union-busting propaganda to a captive audience of eager, unemployed graduates and their families? That just makes me nauseous. (Though I suppose Abby's speech was fairly generic, for better or for worse.)
(I suppose it's also worth mentioning here that Emerson recently built a new skyline-defining campus on Sunset Boulevard; BU also has an LA program, though I don't think the school has quite the same physical presence.)