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David Zaslav was met with boos and angry chants from students after taking the stage at Boston University on Sunday to accept his honorary degree and give the 2023 commencement speech.
Those cries began as early as the Warner Bros. Discovery CEO’s introduction by BU President Robert A. Brown during the 150th commencement exercises at Nickerson Field. As Brown spoke to Zaslav’s “passion for documenting and sharing the human story on a global scale,” the chants and booing immediately picked up, followed by what would become a constant ebb and flow of calls throughout his 20-minute speech.
That included screams, shouts and chants from the hundreds of seniors seated as 7,000 degrees were conferred in nearly 350 fields of study Sunday at the event, which started at 1 p.m. ET. “We don’t want you here,” “Pay your writers” and “Shut up, Zaslav” could be heard emanating from the crowd, messages similar to the prepared chants for the picket, including some created by the school’s YDSA chapter members and school students who were inspired by BU hockey chants.
At one point, as the WBD CEO joked about giving students life advice, he garnered even more boos and had to repeatedly stop his speech until the waves of cries temporarily died down. He also discussed finding financial success as a lawyer but not feeling fulfilled because he didn’t love what he was doing, encouraging the crowd to pursue their passion. But when he noted, “I was making good money, I was feeling really great,” the crowd responded with another wave of angry chants and boos.
While parts of his speech concentrated on his work ethic and struggle to find happiness in his professional life in law, the crowd was unrelenting and unforgiving in its reception of his narratives around hard work, working with people, choosing kindness and his pivot into Hollywood.
“Some people will be looking for a fight,” Zaslav told BU students around halfway through his speech, to a mix of boos and cheers. “But don’t be the one they find it with. Focus on good people’s qualities. In my career, I’ve seen so many talented people lose opportunities or jobs because they couldn’t get along with others. You can’t choose the people you work with. Figure out what you like about a person — there’s always something — and do whatever it takes to navigate their challenges. We all have them.”
The sentiment garnered an audible uproar, with some students laughing while others continued to shout or even express shock.
“I am grateful to my alma mater, Boston University, for inviting me to be part of today’s commencement and for giving me an honorary degree,” Zaslav said in a statement to The Hollywood Reporter. “As I have often said, I am immensely supportive of writers and hope the strike is resolved soon and in a way that they feel recognizes their value.”
Students from BU’s College of Communications, which houses its film and TV program, as well as the College of Fine Arts and some enrolled in the College of Arts and Sciences, were among those who had expressed interest or were expected to take part in the ceremony protest, according to Vanessa Bartlett, a graduating senior who helped lead the student-led writers strike solidarity event inside Nickerson Field.
“I’m in the same college as a bunch of film and TV kids,” Bartlett, who studied political science and journalism and was among those who created the day’s official chants, told The Hollywood Reporter ahead of the event. “I’m friends with a lot of people in the College of Fine Arts, people who are in the theater arts program, so having a sense of solidarity is very important to me.”
Outside the commencement ceremony, picketers were marching since 11:30 a.m. on Commonwealth Avenue near Harry Agganis Way. Both commencement events were headed up and driven by Boston University’s YDSA group, with the outside picket supported and coordinated in conjunction with WGA East, Boston DSA and DSA-LA’s Hollywood Labor.
That picket, which reportedly had around 350 confirmed in attendance according to one individual who was working the event’s check-in, also garnered support from other Hollywood and non-Hollywood Boston-based unions and groups.
Among them were members of BU’s graduate workers union and the resident assistants union, as well as IATSE, SAG-AFTRA, SEUI, IUPAT, hospitality union Boston Local 26, and Local 537 and UA Local 447, which support plumbers, pipefitters, refrigeration fitters and service technicians. The Greater Boston Labor Council, some local university professors and parents of graduates also joined the line.
Additionally, protesters were seen congregating around Rich Hall, where speakers including Zaslav were dropped off. The area not only featured protesters, who greeted the WBD CEO as he entered the field, but the giant Scabby the Rat inflatable, brought to the event by IUPAT members.
And before Zaslav took the stage, an airplane banner with the message “David Zaslav Pay Your Writers” could be seen flying above the picket and commencement exercises at Nickerson Field.
In the hours before the ceremonies began, WGA shared a statement on Twitter, clarifying that the goal of the solidarity event was not to be disruptive to the graduating seniors. “The picket is in no way meant to stop students, families, or faculty from attending the graduation ceremony, or to disrupt the ceremony,” WGA East tweeted. “The tool kit provides context for the picket and ideas for silently supporting the writers strike. Thank you for the solidarity.”
Following the event, WGA East told THR in a statement that, “The message from students, writers, members of other unions and of the community is very clear: Zaslav and all of the company chiefs have to negotiate an agreement that addresses the very real challenges WGA members face, that make it possible for writers — and aspiring writers — to build and sustain careers creating the content that the companies rely on for revenue and profit.“
Ryan Black, Boston DSA coordinating committee member and one of the picket organizers, added in a separate statement that “Writers know that DSA stands with them nationwide, and at today’s picket we saw hundreds more do, too. Students and families understand that they share a common cause with workers on strike for their livelihoods and profession.”
When Boston University confirmed that Zaslav would be giving the commencement speech at the graduation May 11, despite the ongoing writers strike, the Writers Guild officially announced they would be picketing the ceremony. “Boston University should not give voice to someone who wants to destroy their students’ ability to build a career in the film and television industry,” the union said in a statement at the time.
In a previous statement, the WGA called the decision to select Zaslav as one of the school’s commencement speakers a “poor decision” and noted that both guild members based in Boston and students enrolled in the university’s film and television program have expressed “deep disappointment” over its choice to give a university platform to the CEO.
“Zaslav having overseen that Warner Bros. Discovery merger, it makes all the more clear for people whose financial interests he’s serving, who he’s looking out for and the writers quite correctly have ascertained that it’s not them,” Black told THR ahead of the Sunday solidarity event. “I think that’s made him a magnet — especially given the writers strike — of ire for protests like this.”
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