The 2014 graduation season will be remembered for speeches not made. And that is not a good thing. It is not new for students to protest against the selection of graduation speakers. During the 1960’s, students spoke out and criticized at graduation ceremonies to protest the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Things settled down for a decade or so, but lately the protests have become news again. This time the result is that invited commencement speakers are saying no thanks to the colleges and universities that invited them
Let us begin with Former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and Rutgers University, “The State University of New Jersey.” She withdrew her acceptance to be this year’s commencement speaker after weeks of protests by some faculty and students, who argued that she should not have been selected because of her involvement in the Iraq War during the Bush Administration. Students even staged a sit-in. They confronted the university president with chants of “Cancel Condi.” Shades of 1960’s war protests.
On May 12, International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde withdrew as speaker at Smith College amid protests over IMF policies. She is considered one of the most powerful women in the world who broke the glass ceiling. An online petition, which garnered approximately 500 signatures read, “By selecting Ms. Lagarde as the commencement speaker, we are supporting the International Monetary Fund and thus going directly against Smith’s values to stand in unity with equality for all women, regardless of race, ethnicity or class.”
Robert J. Birgeneau, former chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley withdrew his invitation to deliver the commencement speech at Haverford College. Students and several professors protested concern over his leadership during a 2011 incident when University of California police used force on students protesting college costs.
Students and faculty at Brandeis University forced the administration to withdraw plans to award an honorary degree to Somalia-born women’s rights activist Ayaan Hirsa Ali because of her controversial remarks about Islam and its treatment of women.
Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, labeled this time of year as the “disinvitation season.” He says that what has changed is not so much the protests themselves, but the willingness of colleges and speakers to give in.
On the other side of the coin, Harvard University did not rescind its invitation to former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg in spite of protests from the students, faculty and alumni of the Graduate School of Education for his stance of education reform. Here’s a snippet of what Bloomberg said at the commencement ceremony:
“Intolerance of ideas, whether liberal or conservative, is antithetical to individual rights and free societies, and it is no less antithetical to great universities and first-rate scholarship. There is an idea floating around college campuses, including here at Harvard, that scholars should be funded only if their work conforms to a particular view of justice. There’s a word for that idea: censorship. And it is just a modern-day form of McCarthyism. Think about the irony: In the 1950s, the right wing was attempting to repress left-wing ideas. Today, on many college campuses, it is liberals trying to repress conservative ideas, even as conservative faculty members are at risk of becoming an endangered species. And perhaps nowhere is that more true than here in the Ivy League. …
“Requiring scholars — and commencement speakers, for that matter — to conform to certain political standards undermines the whole purpose of a university.”
In my management class I have students watch Steve Jobs’ 2005 commencement speech to the graduates of Stanford University. It is powerful, it exhibits many insights into Jobs’ life and it is inspiring. Afterwards, our class discusses various aspects of the speech. I ask what the students liked and did not like about the speech. It does not take long before a student will bring out something negative, either about the speech, about Jobs or about Apple. Often it is a student who will opine that he or she doesn’t like Jobs and that Apple is evil. That leads to a lively discussion. It never fails that at the end of the discussion some students will say that they learned something about Jobs because of watching the speech and discussing it afterwards. They also say that had they not seen this speech they never would have considered the other perspectives they heard from other students.
The classroom discussion illustrates the negative aspect of a minority of students or faculty or the public imposing their will on the opportunity to hear opposing or disagreeable views. Of course, they will say that by having the speaker not speak is their way of expressing their own views. How does that square with this statement from the Rutgers University student handbook:
“We embrace difference by cultivating inclusiveness and respect of both people and points of view.”
All of which reveals the division our country has gotten itself into.
The question now is very simple: Are we willing to listen to opposing views?
Phil Hardwick is coordinator of capacity development at the John C. Stennis Institute of Government. Pease contact Hardwick at firstname.lastname@example.org