Students are planning to walk out of an upcoming all-school assembly tomorrow set to feature Andrew Puzder, former CEO of Carl’s Jr. and former Secretary of Labor nominee for the Trump administration. Puzder’s presentation is called, “Why Millennials Should Embrace Capitalism,” counselor Michelle Bracken said.
The Economics Club decided to sponsor Puzder through a recommendation by Adam Copses ’20, club co-president Will Cook-Healy ’19 said. Cook-Healy said the club decided to sponsor the speaker because they felt his position as Labor Secretary nominee and his experience in business would be interesting for an assembly.
“It will be really interesting for a speaker to come talk about how our economy functions and ways that we can more actively participate in it, come to understand it and make more informed decisions as voters,” Cook-Healy said. “I think that’s an important facet of life that probably gets under-discussed, especially as high schoolers because we’re removed from having to deal with real economic issues.”
Puzder helped Carl’s Jr. avoid bankruptcy and later stepped in as its CEO, where he expanded the franchise and the Hardee’s chain, according to the New York Times. He drew scrutiny when he was nominated by President Trump to be Secretary of Labor in 2016 due to his views opposing minimum wage and worker regulation increases, his alleged wage violations at his restaurant chains and old abuse allegations from his ex-wife that have been recanted in court. Puzder withdrew from the nomination for Labor Secretary and announced that he would step down as CEO in April.
The school instructed Puzder to make his presentation apolitical, Cook-Healy said.
However, Cecelia Wright ’19 said many students think his message would be more conducive to a debate format with both conservative and liberal economic perspectives represented.
“Speaking for myself and most of the young people I know, we do not know a great deal about economics,” Cecelia Wright ’19 said. “Having a person to come and talk to us about the economy could, potentially, be a great thing. Putting aside my own beliefs and the speaker’s past, I do not believe that the proposed speaker is the best candidate to do this, at least on his own. Economic theory will be boiled down to one person’s point of view, a point of view that most of us will not be able to compare to our own beliefs and the evidence that supports those beliefs because we simply have not formed them yet. So, this will leave many of us in the position where we either believe all of what this one speaker says as the truth, and allow it to shape the base of our economic knowledge or disregard all of what the speaker says.”
Students also raised concerns about the new policy for questioning that will be implemented during the presentation.
Bracken announced in an email Friday that students’ questions will be submitted before the assembly and moderated by members of the sponsoring club. If time allots at the end of the assembly, students will also be allowed to ask impromptu questions.
“This is a chance to just streamline the process and encourage more thoughtful questions,” Director of Student Affairs Jordan Church said. “I just want to make it clear it’s ‘and’ [open-mic questions] not ‘or.’”
Head of Upper School Laura Ross said that the new system will also allow students who would otherwise be hesitant to ask questions to do so without having to stand in front of the whole school.
Cook-Healy said the new system of questioning was put in place to avoid embarrassing both the speaker and the school. Cook-Healy and Economics Club co-president Asa Saperstein said Puzder will not see the questions in advance. The questions will be reviewed by school administrators, economics teachers and Economics Club members.
Griffin Gunn-Meyers ’19 said he will walk out of the assembly to protest the fact that the school will screen questions and Puzder’s views on minimum wage. He took to the Class of 2019 Facebook page to urge students to walk out as well.
“He’s coming to speak about economics, and he’s had lawsuits about how he treats his workers and not paying his workers enough money, and he’s coming to talk about why it’s good while ignoring the fact that he’s hurting thousands of people that are employed by him,” Gunn-Meyers said. “I’m going to walk out mid-speech in front of him. If we just follow the rules, we’ll be unable to show the administration that we don’t support this.”
Gunn-Meyers said he plans to walk out despite any potential consequences. He said that classmates who he spoke to implied they would support him, and some said they would also walk out with him.
Students found fliers on campus Thursday night saying, “Don’t want to support a man 6% of whose establishments break labor laws? Just leave! Puzder Assembly Walkout – 12:45.”
“I think a walkout, though a valid expression of students’ unhappiness with the speaker selection, is ultimately not productive, for it closes people’s ears and leaves their minds unchanged,” Cook-Healy said. “This strikes me as a way to deepen, not resolve, partisanship. I have gay dads [who are] staunchly opposed to [Puzder] and the things for which he stands, but I believe that as their son, it is my obligation not to shut out the other side but to embrace it, and in doing so, maybe learn how we can move forth to a place where consensus is more common, hatred less frequent and views less radical.”
Members of the Economics club said they think people who disagree with Puzder should use the assembly as a learning opportunity.
“I think that any opportunity to hear a speaker at Harvard-Westlake is a good one, even if you disagree with him as a person or disagree with his politics,” Economics Club President of Outreach Will Berlin ’19 said. “I think it’s important to put those beliefs aside for an hour to hear what he has to say, and then after the speech, you can hold valuable political conversations.”
Ross said that she also hopes students and teachers who anticipate disagreeing with Puzder will use the assembly as an opportunity to gain an understanding of a different perspective. She encouraged teachers to bring up the discussion again in the classroom.
“When we bring speakers to campus, one of the things we do try to do is bring people that maybe think differently than the majority of people: adults and kids,” Ross said. “That’s a critical piece of learning. We’ve decided in this instance that this is someone who we know holds views that many people on our campus don’t hold, and exactly that is what can make someone a good speaker. What I hope is that teachers and students who are concerned are going to prepare, are going to come in with really good questions and are going to come in with an open mind.”
Update Nov. 5, 9:28 a.m.: La Femme leaders sent an email to club members saying students who have strong feelings about the speaker can go to Ahmanson Lecture Hall during the assembly to discuss with other students. Students who are found not in either Taper Gym or Ahmanson Lecture Hall will receive a detention.
“We encourage that people go to the assembly as an opportunity to engage with someone who may not have the same opinions or even moral values as you,” La Femme leader Uma Durairaj ’19 said in the email.