GREENVILLE, PITT COUNTY - The ECU provost is asking students to "disregard" an assistant professor's email saying they "can't thank God" in their graduation statements.
Dr. Eli Hvastkovs of the ECU Department of Chemistry emailed a message on May 1 to chemistry majors, reminding them that they can send him a voluntary personal statement for the department's graduation ceremony.
"If he's an atheist and he has those beliefs that's his business, but he has no business telling our students what to believe," said Dr. Robert Prati, a finance professor at the University.
In the email, Dr. Hvastkovs included a list of guidelines for the voluntary personal statements. The first point reads as follows:
"1) You can't thank God. I'm sorry about this - and I don't want to have to outline the reasons why."
"With him being a, through the eyes of a student a figure of authority, that can really be intimidating," said second degree student Eric Hogue.
ECU Provost Dr. Marilyn Sheerer has since responded to Dr. Hvastkovs' message. In an email to chemistry majors, she wrote the following:
"Please disregard Dr. Hvastkovs's previous email regarding your departmental graduation statement he sent to you on May 1, 2014. I have confirmed with the Chair of the Department of Chemistry that students may submit personal statements, up to 35 words, to be read during the departmental ceremony.
"These statements can be your personal expressions and as such the University will only limit these expressions, as permitted by applicable First Amendment law.
"...Religious references of any type will not be restricted. I regret that, without approval from the appropriate University officials, any other limitations were communicated to you. Thank you.
"I don't think that it's right that somebody tells me that I am not allowed to worship my God," said sophomore Marytza Joseph.
ECU issued another statement on Tuesday, reiterating the provost's message:
"We believe by allowing the students to submit a personal statement for reading during a departmental graduation ceremony, the university creates a forum for student expression. As such, the university regrets that, without approval from the appropriate university officials, other limitations and instructions were communicated to participating students in one department."
ECU continued to say that students have been notified of the "legally permissible constraints" for voluntary personal statements for graduation ceremonies, including clarification "that there are no constraints on religious references."
Deans and department chairs have received a reminder of school policies, ECU said, adding that "we will use this incident in a intentional way to heighten awareness and understanding of our practices within the university."
Dr. Hvastkovs issued a statement of his own to Pirate Radio, saying that he "worded the email poorly," and sent it out without "thinking how it might read."
He continued, saying he "is not an atheist", and regularly attends church.
Dr. Eli Hvastkovs' statement to Pirate Radio 1250 & 930 (WGHB / WDLX):
"Here's why the email was sent. We have a departmental graduation ceremony where we read off the graduate's names and they ...walk across the stage. In the past that's all that they did. I came up with the idea last year to read a little information about the student as they walked up - you know, things like where they will work, if they got into med school, etc. I sent out the email this year, and the personal information I received was a bit different. I had students that wanted to thank long strings of family members, recite poetry, thank God, thank Allah, thank Jesus Christ, etc. In an effort to keep the ceremony moving, I limited the statements to 35 words, but in addition, I received some feedback that some were not comfortable thanking a God(s) on behalf of the students (remember that the students are not speaking - these are not speeches). So that's when I took it upon myself to send the email. I worded it poorly and I sent it out without thinking how it might be read. I did a poor job explaining myself to the Campus Reform reporter that called and hence the Fox News report that you saw. Anyway, in no way did I mean to limit the students' speech. I didn't even consider it to be a big issue since they were not the ones actually speaking the words (this was where I went wrong). But I am not an atheist, I regularly attend church in town, and I am active among the community. I feel terrible that there are ECU alumni that are emailing me and commenting on the message boards bad things about me - and I wanted to say that I am a regular good person, who just sent a poorly worded, poorly thought out email. I am sorry."
Dr. Eli Hvastkovs' original email to chemistry majors:
Hi everyone. Just a reminder to everyone (undergraduate majors) that if you are planning on being at the graduation ceremony, you can provide me with a personal statement that thanks someone or tells us your future plans. I've had some submissions that needed to be edited. so here are some guidelines:
1. You can't thank God. I'm sorry about this - and I don't want to have to outline the reasons why.
2. Provide me something written in the 3rd person. Think that someone will read this, it won't be you.
3. Keep it brief. I didn't give you a real word limit, but at max think 35 words. We do have time to read these but it can't be a paragraph (we've had some).
4. Keep it family friendly, and not gross. (Had one that was).
Thanks - I hope everyone understands these guidelines.
Eli Hvastkovs, PhD.
Dept. of Chemistry
East Carolina University
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