Jun. 2, 2024


Dear University Community, 

During UNLV’s Spring Commencement ceremonies on May 11, I was excited to celebrate with the 3,700-plus graduates, many of whom are the first in their families to earn a bachelor’s degree. 

Commencement is the absolute best part of my job and a truly unique and uplifting experience at UNLV. It’s a chance to highlight the enormous success of our students alongside their families, friends, and the entire Rebel community. 

Unfortunately, what should have been a celebration for all in attendance has become the focus of scrutiny because of remarks shared during one of the speeches. A student speaker at UNLV’s morning commencement changed their speech from what was originally submitted in advance of the ceremony. I am disappointed by what I believe was an intent of deception and to mislead. That is not the Rebel way, nor do such actions represent the values we embrace as a university. The vast majority of UNLV graduates will be joining professions that have codes of conduct which they will be mandated to follow or face reprimands and discipline that will dictate their ultimate success or failure.   

Protecting free speech and academic freedom is something that I am very serious about upholding. However, we are all responsible for what we say, when we say it, what venue we choose to say it in, and how it may impact others. The guidelines and policies we have in place are important standards to ensure every individual is afforded the dignity and respect this milestone celebration demands. 

I understand that the words spoken during the commencement ceremony were hurtful to some graduates and others in attendance, and I want to make it clear that this speech does not represent the views of this university. 

I hope this is a lesson not lost on our students, faculty, or staff, as it is one that I have taken to heart too. It reminds me that I must do better in making clear my intentions and the expectations we have for the members of our campus community. Not in an effort to silence anyone – but to ensure everyone feels welcome and can be heard in the proper forums. I believe this is a teaching moment we all can learn from.  

I will be reviewing our process to select our student speakers as well as other university policies to ensure that we maintain the celebratory spirit of commencement for our graduates and their families and friends. 

Additionally, I will look for and be open to educational opportunities for our campus community. That is what we do and who we are – it is central to our mission to provide an academic forum for discourse on matters of importance to our students and our campuses.

In that same spirit, I met with several groups near the end of the spring semester regarding the ongoing conflict in Israel and Gaza to hear their concerns and perspectives. Some have criticized me for my open-door policy. And some have made assumptions and misrepresentations in the media or elsewhere. 

This includes an (incorrect) assertion that UNLV will disclose our investments with any ties to Israel or that we would consider divesting from those investments. We will not. I will not. 

As a life-long educator, I do feel that dialogue often provides an opportunity for better understanding and learning. That doesn’t mean I agree with everything shared or said in these meetings, but I do take very seriously the concerns of any student who feels unsafe or marginalized. There is absolutely no room on our campuses for that.  

UNLV is an academic institution that represents the diversity in the State of Nevada. We have policies in place regarding the use of venues and the opportunities to exercise First Amendment rights on our campus, and I expect everyone to adhere to these rules. We will not tolerate any form of prejudice, discrimination, threatening behavior, harassment, bullying, or intimidation of members of our university community that disrupt education on our campus. Any student, faculty, or staff member that experiences such behavior is encouraged to report it so that it may be addressed. I will not hesitate to get our university police involved to ensure the safety and security of everyone on our campuses. 

I encourage everyone to take some time this summer to reflect, as I will, on ways in which we can build on our core values as a university, find common ground, and begin the new academic year stronger and more focused on our shared mission. 

Warm Regards,

Keith E. Whitfield, Ph.D.
President, UNLV