LOS ANGELES, CA — Years before making “The Terminator,” Arnold Schwarzenegger was a young Austrian bodybuilder hitting the books at Santa Monica College, hungry to become a success.
But the celebrity governor’s plan to return to his alma mater next week to deliver a commencement address is turning into something less than a homecoming celebration.
A faculty group declared that Schwarzenegger “threatened academic freedom.” The Board of Trustees was asked to rescind the invitation. And protests that could attract hundreds of people from on and off campus are being organized around the governor’s scheduled appearance on June 14.
The school took the awkward step Monday of issuing a statement defending the choice of the Republican governor to address the 600 graduates.
“It’s particularly fitting that he be our speaker this year because it’s our 75th anniversary and the college has put a spotlight on alumni,” said interim President Thomas J. Donner. “He is the governor of the state of California, he is an alumnus of Santa Monica College, and he has been very supportive of community colleges.”
Asked about the friction at the school, Schwarzenegger’s chief spokeswoman Margita Thompson said in an e-mail that the “governor is planning on giving the speech.”
Schwarzenegger, elected in 2003 after promising to rid Sacramento of partisanship and insider influence, has seen his popularity slide as he pushes proposals to cap state spending, redraw legislative district boundaries and make it harder for teachers to gain tenure.
He has been feuding for months with groups he calls “special interests” – teachers, nurses and other public employee unions who accuse him of selling out to big business while shortchanging education, health care and other programs. Those groups have hounded Schwarzenegger at his public appearances, sometimes attracting crowds in the thousands.
“The governor continues to take the position that he is the education governor. Our position is he hasn’t shown that,” said Kenneth Mason, a Santa Monica College history professor who is part of an ad hoc faculty-student group that wants the invitation withdrawn. “His education proposals are all wrongheaded.”
Jamie Court, president of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, a group that frequently criticizes the governor, warned that “he’s going to have to talk loudly because there’s going to be a lot of noise.”
Schwarzenegger took general studies classes at the two-year, community college between 1970 and 1974, school spokesman Bruce Smith said. Schwarzenegger later took correspondence courses through the University of Wisconsin-Superior, where he earned a degree in 1979.
Santa Monica College, a short distance from the beach, was founded in 1929 and has 8,000 full-time students. Its alumni include actor Dustin Hoffman and musician Rickie Lee Jones.
Last month the college’s Academic Senate, a faculty group, stopped short of calling for the school to cancel the speech but broadly condemned the governor’s education policies in a resolution.
Schwarzenegger “has diminished access to higher education by approving increases in student fees,” the resolution said. He “has threatened academic freedom by supporting a voter initiative … that would alter the manner by which California faculty receive tenure.”
According to the state Finance Department, the governor’s proposed budget would increase funding for community colleges by 6 percent in the next school year while holding student fees flat.
Those fees were boosted by more than 40 percent last year, from $18 to $26 a unit, although they remain among the lowest in the nation.
Student body president Jeronimo Saldana lamented that politics might overshadow the graduation ceremony. But he added that if he wasn’t graduating that night he’d be joining the protesters.
“If I was just a regular student, I’d probably be out on the sidewalk with everybody else,” he said. “It’s a really difficult time for students and this governor isn’t making it any easier.”