Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 12 / 22 March 2018

Achtenberg delivers commencement speech at University of Utah

Former San Francisco supervisor and current U.S. Commissioner on Civil Rights Roberta Achtenberg wished “hearty congratulations” to the more than 100 graduates of the University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law as she delivered the commencement speech Friday (May 15).

Achtenberg, a lesbian and longtime educator, is an alumna of the law school and “walked across this very stage” 40 years ago.

(U.S. Civil Rights Commissioner Roberta Achtenberg)

(U.S. Civil Rights Commissioner Roberta Achtenberg)

Currently, Achtenberg, 64, is a member of the California State University Board of Trustees, the nation’s largest four-year university system. She is director of the privately held software company, Andrew J. Wong Inc., and of the Bank of San Francisco, where she serves as vice chair.

Law school Dean Robert Adler told the audience that Achtenberg is a role model and has had an “incredibly diverse” career. She was a staff attorney of the Lesbian Rights Project of Equal Rights Advocates Inc. and a founder of the National Center for Lesbian Rights.

Achtenberg received her undergraduate degree from UC Berkeley in 1972 and graduated from the University of Utah law school in 1975.

Achtenberg told the graduates, faculty, friends, and family members that the law school was “open enough, progressive enough,” and even somewhat radical when she was a student there in the early 1970s.

“I was given so many opportunities,” she said.

Those included being allowed to co-teach a women and the law course in her final year.

“In 1974 this law school hosted a regional conference on women and the law,” she said. “What came out of our conference was a burning desire to have a women and the law course at the University of Utah.”

The first text on the subject had just been written by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, now a U.S. Supreme Court justice, but Achtenberg said that at the time, the law school had only one woman on its faculty. Achtenberg said she teamed up with a visiting professor and the faculty agreed to let them co-teach the course.

Achtenberg talked about her work on the Commission on Civil Rights, which, she said, has been advising President Barack Obama and members of Congress on issues such as peer-to-peer violence and bullying in schools, military sexual assault, and the school to prison pipeline that adversely affects minority youth. She also said the commission has worked on policing practices in minority communities, and referenced the national issue of police brutality that has arisen in the wake of white officers killing unarmed black men and boys in Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, “to name just two” cities where such incidents have occurred.

“The precepts that I have brought to that task I learned here,” Achtenberg said.

She also discussed her controversial confirmation hearing back in 1993 when then-President Bill Clinton nominated her to be an assistant secretary in the Housing and Urban Development Department. She was the first openly lesbian nominee to be named for a position that required Senate confirmation, and, she told the audience, she needed every vote she could muster.

The late North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms had waged a vicious campaign against her confirmation, vowing not to vote for “that damned lesbian.”

That was when Achtenberg turned to her connections at the university.

“I had a secret weapon,” she said, “Dean Sam Thurman.”

Thurman, who was the law school dean when Achtenberg attended the university, wrote a letter “praising me and my accomplishments,” she said. “That letter was read on the floor of the Senate perhaps a dozen times.”

But more importantly, Achtenberg said, was that Thurman interceded on her behalf with Republican Utah Senator Bob Bennett.

“When the final vote came in, I got 54 votes and I was confirmed,” Achtenberg said, adding that many had a look of surprise on their faces because they never expected an “aye” vote for her from the conservative Utah senator.

“Part of the reason was that I am an alumna of the U and so is he,” she said, using the school’s nickname.

In closing, Achtenberg told the graduating students that they have been prepared well.

“Your heart, as well as your mind, has been changed irreparably and for the better,” she said.

— Cynthia Laird, May 15, 2015 @ 11:19 am PST
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