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At the University of Maryland University College commencement ceremony in May, Professor Detlef Junker, center, director of the Heidelberg Center for American Studies, received an honorary degree from UMUC President Gerald A. Heeger, left, and school director John C. Golembe. Junker’s comments as the ceremony’s keynote speaker irked some graduates and attendees.

At the University of Maryland University College commencement ceremony in May, Professor Detlef Junker, center, director of the Heidelberg Center for American Studies, received an honorary degree from UMUC President Gerald A. Heeger, left, and school director John C. Golembe. Junker’s comments as the ceremony’s keynote speaker irked some graduates and attendees. (Regis Bossu / Special to S&S)

At the University of Maryland University College commencement ceremony in May, Professor Detlef Junker, center, director of the Heidelberg Center for American Studies, received an honorary degree from UMUC President Gerald A. Heeger, left, and school director John C. Golembe. Junker’s comments as the ceremony’s keynote speaker irked some graduates and attendees.

At the University of Maryland University College commencement ceremony in May, Professor Detlef Junker, center, director of the Heidelberg Center for American Studies, received an honorary degree from UMUC President Gerald A. Heeger, left, and school director John C. Golembe. Junker’s comments as the ceremony’s keynote speaker irked some graduates and attendees. (Regis Bossu / Special to S&S)

Professor Detlef Junker gives the keynote address at the University of Maryland University College's commencment ceremony in May.

Professor Detlef Junker gives the keynote address at the University of Maryland University College's commencment ceremony in May. (Regis Bossu / Special to S&S)

(Click here for the full text of Dr. Junkers' speech.)

A local expert on German-American relations recently gave new University of Maryland graduates something to talk about — and, in some cases, chant about — with a commencement address some thought bashed America.

“He starting talking about [President Bush’s] 2002 State of the Union address, the axis of evil, you’re either with us or against us — and that’s when it started going downhill,” said Cheryl Atwood, a commissary technology specialist who received her Bachelor of Science degree at the May 29 ceremony.

“At first, I thought, “I’m being overly sensitive.’ Then I heard somebody in the back shouting ‘USA! USA!’ and I thought, ‘Maybe I’m not taking it wrong.’ Several people got up and left and people stood up waving, telling him to sit down.”

Atwood’s husband was upset enough to leave the ceremony at the Patrick Henry Village pavilion, so that when his wife walked on stage to get her diploma, she couldn’t find him in the crowd. “It really dampened his mood,” she said. “So it really dampened mine.”

Professor Detlef Junker, founder and director of the Heidelberg Center for American Studies, a self-professed great admirer of the United States — and the man who gave the address positing German-American relations were at their lowest ebb since World War II because of Bush administration policies — said he’s just the messenger.

“I still think it’s a balanced and fair statement and it is a correct European perspective,” Junker said Monday. “I thought on that day of history I should not only give some general niceties but say something substantial. After all, this is Jefferson’s first principle: Americans cannot be both ignorant and free.”

Junker has subsequently received several e-mails and letters, some, especially from faculty, supporting him. One letter writer, though, called him a Nazi.

“It was below the belt,” Junker said. “I threw it immediately in the basket.”

John Golembe, director of the University of Maryland University College Europe, also dealt with a number of unhappy graduates and attendees who called or e-mailed him to complain.

“I say, ‘If this bothered you and you think your day was spoiled, I’m sorry for that,’” Golembe said.

But Golembe, who’s been with the University of Maryland Heidelberg program for the past 26 years, said Junker’s speech fell squarely within the tradition of college commencement speeches. There are basically two types, he said. One type is full of praise for graduates’ accomplishments.

That’s what Atwood had hoped to hear. “For graduation I want to hear feel-good stuff: ‘Way to go! You did great!’ ” she said.

The second sort of commencement address deals with issues.

“They want to convey a message. Sometimes when they do that, the message can be controversial,” Golembe said. One woman later told him she was disappointed that he didn’t get up and drag Junker off the stage, Golembe said. But others have asked him for a copy of the speech. “It was interesting this year, that’s for sure,” he said.

Junker said that, as a scholar, he could be expected only to talk about issues.

“I think in the best tradition of an academic, you tell facts and talk about reality,” he said. “I wanted to tell them because they’re not aware of what’s going on in Europe. I’m deeply concerned about it.”

While he was speaking — about the “almost free fall of the reputation of the U.S.,” which he credited to several Bush administration policies, foremost, the “unilateral self-empowerment of the United States through the doctrine of the pre-emptive strike” — Junker wasn’t sure what was happening with the crowd of more than 1,000 people.

“There were some people saying something but I was so concentrated on my talk,” he said. “I looked into the faces and some nodded, so I got mixed signals.”

Afterward he knew. It wasn’t just the booing. One graduate came on stage, stopped and saluted the flag and then looked directly at Junker. “He gave me a very nasty look,” Junker said.

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Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.
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