Protests Over Commencement Speakers

May 14, 2014

Christine Lagarde (IMF Chief) has withdrawn as Smith’s commencement speaker, Condoleeza Rice (W’s Secretary of State) has withdrawn as Rutgers’s speaker, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali (women’s rights activist and critic of Islam) had her invitation to speak at Brandeis withdrawn. These are just the headline instances of protests succeeding in dismissing commencement speakers. At Haverford, my own alma mater, Robert Birgeneau (former University of California Chancellor) withdrew rather than meet a series of student demands.

My son writes to ask what I think “about this type of protest, employed at Haverford (and Rutgers, Smith, etc.).”  he adds, “It strikes me that, at its best, a commencement is a university’s last chance to teach its graduating students. That is, it’s the ultimate teaching and learning experience. And maybe some students would learn a great deal from Birgenau, Rice, or Lagarde. But isn’t the expected total learning of all students highest under the prevailing circumstances, in which students voice principled opposition to (or support for!) particular speakers who represent, fairly or unfairly, the state of national and world affairs? And all that’s aside from the fact that these public figures in fact deserve to face the crucible of public opinion.”

I gather he thinks these successful protests are justified, and he may well suspect I don’t since I’ve forcefully spoken out against efforts to silence Bill Kristol and decried efforts to deny a podium to Charles Murray while I was as at Earlham.  (Some of my earlier posts on speakers and academic freedom are here here, and here.)

About these instances, I think, first, that potential speakers, once invited to speak at a college or university, ought to be supported. That is, they should not only be permitted to speak but encouraged and assured that the institution will not tolerate any efforts to chase them away. If a speaker chooses to withdraw nevertheless, the college or university should express its regret.  Institutions of higher education must solidly affirm the giving and taking of arguments. That value (academic freedom) trumps efforts to have them teach any particular point of view.

Second, though, I believe the practice of inviting commencement speakers is a bad idea. Rarely if ever should students or faculty find themselves compelled to hear a speaker to whom they object. They ought frequently to find themselves with opportunities to hear such speakers, even encouraged to attend, but they should not be required to take advantage of them. The practice of inviting speakers who may be controversial is justifiable only if members of the university community can absent themselves. A commencement, on the other hand, is an occasion that all graduating seniors are expected to attend, and one that their parents would scarcely want to miss. At Earlham, the graduating class asks a faculty member, not an outsider, to address them. The seniors hear advice from a friend, not a potentially objectionable stranger.

In regretting Lagarde’s withdrawal, Smith’s President, Kathleen McCartney, said “An invitation to speak at a commencement is not an endorsement of all views or policies of an individual or the institution she or he leads.”  She should have said that, as she should say that about any speaker invited to speak at her college.  An invitation to speak is a warrant from someone that the speaker ‘deserves a hearing’ not that she ‘has truths to be swallowed whole.’ Nevertheless, inviting a speaker to give a commencement address is about as close as a college can come to endorsing a speaker’s views.  It is a captive audience, and a speaker has been chosen to (presumably) impart life lessons. If an honorary degree is to be conferred, that only underscores the endorsement of views.

I much prefer a speaker policy that decentralizes who offers opportunities to speak. Any academic department ought to be able to issue invitations. So ought recognized student organizations. The university should then stand behind the integrity of the opportunity to speak: the institution’s claim not to be endorsing the speaker’s views is then much more credible. When the institution itself issues the invitation for a compulsory (or nearly so) event, it is harder to claim that no endorsement of the speaker’s views is implied.

Why not a commencement speaker to whom no one would object? Hardly. Wouldn’t that be a recipe for dullness or mediocrity?

I fully support students finding forceful ways to voice their opposition to speakers and the opinions and behaviors they represent. Leaflets at the door of the lecture hall, opinion pieces in the student newspaper, teach-ins and other counter events, costumes worn to the event that may embarrass the speaker: all these are fair game.  An Earlham audience once listened to George Wallace in steely silence: no questions, no applause. They just listened and left: that was a powerful message.

Efforts to stop a speech or chase a speaker away I don’t support, still less admire. But let’s move away from the annual ritual of outside commencement speakers and put the focus on celebrating the graduates.


About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
This entry was posted in Academic Freedom, Governance, Mission. Bookmark the permalink.

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