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Christine Lagarde (IMF Chief) has withdrawn as Smith’s commencement speaker, Condoleeza Rice (W’s Secretary of State) has withdrawn as Rutgers’s speaker, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali (women’s rights activist and critic of Islam) had her invitation to speak at Brandeis withdrawn.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.


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Constraints on Leadership: Missions, Roles and Values

April 3, 2014

“We must not suppose that those in authority are unaware …, but we must recognize that their liberty of action is often circumscribed by the nature of their office: the powerful are not necessarily free.”

That quotation is from Duncan Wood, who some decades ago directed the Quaker United Nations Office in Geneva. This statement was lifted up for me at a recent meeting of the oversight committee for the Quaker United Nations Office in New York. A fuller version of the quotation is below, but first I want to relate an incident that gave what Wood said greater resonance for me.

Recently I met up with young Earlham alumnus—someone who was a student while I was President—who expressed surprise at hearing me say positive things about BDS, the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign initiated by Palestinians for which they are seeking wide support. How had I come to change my mind, he wondered while we were together at the annual meeting of the AFSC Corporation. I serve on a few AFSC committees as a volunteer; he is now an AFSC staff member.

How do you mean? I asked. Well, he said, at Earlham as President you were opposed to BDS and now here you are supporting it. What changed your mind? I hadn’t really changed my mind, I told him, and then tried to explain to him how institutional roles can limit what you can say or do – especially when you are in a leadership role. I don’t know whether what I said made any sense to him, but here is roughly what I said.

When you take on a leadership role in an organization, I said, you are pledging to serve that organization’s purposes wholeheartedly. Ideally there is a good deal of congruence between your values and the values of the organization you serve. If they diverge a great deal, you shouldn’t accept the leadership position. But there is very little chance, I said, that there will be perfect congruence between your values and the purposes of the organization. You have to be prepared to live with that tension, and it can be awkward. In public, you have a responsibility to make the case for the organization’s view of things and not undercut that case by saying that your own view is different.

If you think you would always have to voice your own personal point of view, that’s another reason you shouldn’t accept a leadership position. (To some, that keeping silent may look like lack of integrity, but I think that’s a shallow view of the matter.)

Why won’t there be perfect congruence between your view and the organizations? Can’t a President steer an organization where s/he pleases? In a word, no. Two sorts of reasons lead to some nearly inevitable divergence between a person’s personal values and the values of an organization s/he serves. For one thing, most organizations have a process for decision-making in which one person doesn’t make all the decisions, not even the President. At Earlham, a great many people are involved in decision-making at early stages, but in the end the Board of Trustees makes final decisions on many important matters. As President I was a member of the Board, but just one of twenty-four. Occasionally the Board made decisions that diverged from my own inclinations. (Aside: How could that happen with Quaker decision-making? Because in none of those kinds of divergences did disagreement turn on deep matters of principle.) When the Board made a decision, it was my job to see to its implementation.

But there is another, more common and more important reason an organization’s values or positions can diverge from your own. Any organization has a mission, and that mission will almost certainly be narrower and more focused than any individual’s set of values or purposes. Earlham’s is an educational mission: “to provide the highest quality education in the liberal arts, including the sciences, shaped by the distinctive perspectives of the Religious Society of Friends.”

An individual’s purposes, on the other hand, are likely to embrace a host of things. A typical Earlhamite might be interested not only in education but also (say) alleviation of poverty, nuclear disarmament, sustainable agriculture, renewable energy, and perhaps (say) contra dancing and juggling. Students would often urge me to have Earlham support one or another of their many personal causes. As someone charged with responsibility for Earlham—and even when these were my causes, too—I would refuse to offer such support. I would say I was prepared to devote resources to education only and to none of the other causes unless it was in a way that directly furthered education. I said I had to use Earlham’s resources (including its good name) only on behalf of its mission.

Education as a mission makes this single-mindedness of institutional purposes broader in some ways (students learn by doing), but also even more limiting in others, or at least as I saw (and see) the matter. To educate well, we want people to think for themselves, to explore alternate ideas in an atmosphere of freedom. A student or a teacher should be able to declare himself on either side of a controversial issue without feeling illegitimate or cast out of the community. A student should be free to support war or peace or liberal or libertarian postures towards alleviating poverty without feeling s/he was out of step with the college. As an organization, that is, Earlham should take care not to take on purposes other than education lest it appear to be promoting some points of view in favor of others. (This posture is a key aspect of academic freedom.)

So how about BDS? While I was at Earlham, the Board of Trustees – through its Socially Responsible Investment Advisory Committee (SRIAC) did not support the BDS campaign. I wasn’t involved in that decision: I was not a member of SRIAC. Had I been, I might well not have favored Earlham supporting BDS, either, even though it had my personal support. With the Israel/Palestine, Earlham would want to be helping students make up their own minds about where justice directs, not making up their minds for them by making institutional political commitments. I would have seen the issue as a hard one because, by mission, Earlham is a Quaker educational institution, and in its organizational posture it has long followed some Quaker testimonies or commitments. In investment policy, for example, Earlham has long tried to avoid investments in alcohol, tobacco, gambling or weapons. IF BDS could be seen to fall under the prohibition against investments in weapons, then perhaps the college would support BDS.

The important point here is that the college not be seen as a place for the forceful expression of anyone’s personal political convictions, but rather to remain a place that adheres wholeheartedly to its mission.

Here, now, is the full quotation from Duncan Wood. In it, Wood recognizes the constraints on leaders. He urges the rest of us to ‘stand beside’ these leaders, lifting up the concerns of ordinary people and helping leaders to see a way beyond what he calls ‘worldly expedients.’

“Since we are not in a position of power, the dilemmas are not ours to solve, the choices not ours to make. From time to time at the United Nations we are brought close to those who have to find the solutions and make the choices. On such occasions it may or may not be given to us to make suggestions which promote the better of two choices or solutions; it is more important that we express our conviction that decisions affecting the lives of multitudes cannot be dictated by worldly expedients but must be taken, as we would express it, “under concern”. We must not suppose that those in authority are unaware of this, but we must recognize that their liberty of action is often circumscribed by the nature of their office: the powerful are not necessarily free. We, who are freer than they are to follow what we believe to be the will of God, may at times be called upon to stand beside them as they seek for light on the road to peace.” —Duncan Wood

To me, the phrase ‘moral expedients’ suggests moral corner-cutting or attention to interests rather than values. Are such ‘worldly expedients’ the only constraints on leaders? With not-for-profit organizations, I don’t think so; that’s what I’ve been trying to explain. There are also constraints that arise from fidelity to mission. How about with democratic governments? Are ‘worldly expedients—in this case the possibility of a backlash from voters or donors—the only constraint?

As I am writing this, I have a chance to read an April 4, 1864 letter from President Abraham Lincoln to Albert G. Hodges, editor of the Frankfort, Kentucky, Commonwealth. (It was featured in a posting from the Civil War Book of Days series from the Vermont Humanities Council.)

I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I cannot remember when I did not so think and feel, and yet I have never understood that the Presidency conferred upon me an unrestricted right to act officially upon this judgment and feeling. It was in the oath that I took, that I would, to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States. I could not take office without taking the oath. . . . I understood, too, that in ordinary civil administration this oath even forbade me to practically indulge my primary abstract judgment on the moral question of slavery. I had publicly declared this many times and in many ways. And I aver that, to this day, I have done no official act in mere deference to my abstract feeling and judgment on slavery. I did understand, however, that my oath to preserve the Constitution to the best of my ability imposed upon me the duty of preserving, by every indispensable means, that government — that nation — of which that Constitution was the organic law. Was it possible to lose the nation and yet preserve the Constitution? . . . I felt that measures, otherwise unconstitutional, might become lawful by becoming indispensable to the preservation of the Constitution through the preservation of the nation. Right or wrong, I assumed this ground; and now avow it. I could not feel that, to the best of my ability, I had even tried to preserve the Constitution, if, to save slavery or any minor matter, I should permit the wreck of government, country, and Constitution, all together. – Abraham Lincoln

Lincoln clearly does not think it is just worldly expedients that have restrained him from steering the nation where his own moral values carry him. He believes there are mission constraints, in his case fidelity to the Constitution. In this letter he is expressing how his fidelity to the Constitution and his personal abhorrence of slavery have now led him to the same place. And thus to the Emancipation Proclamation.

cross-posted to River View Friend

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Let’s Get Organized! Or Should We Form a Community?

March 19, 2014

Many people are ambivalent about organizations. We realize that a good deal of what gets done in this world is done in and through organizations, but we also chafe at the ways they hem us in — their policies and formalities. I used the Google NGram to look at variations over time in when we have spoken of organizations:

association, organizationAs you can see, I also threw in other terms for ways human beings coordinate their activities: association, institution, even corporation. You can see that “institution” was once the commonest of these terms, but/and it’s the one whose frequency of usage has changed the least. The other three terms all show a striking rise about the turn from the 19th to the 20th century. They rise in common, but then “corporation” settles into a spiky, up-and-down pattern. “Association” and “organization” rise dramatically until about 1920, then rise more slowly, and then begin to decline in the 1970s. (Historians tell us that many of the sturdy organizations we depend upon today were first formed at the beginning of the 20th century.)  Over the past hundred years, we seem to have embraced more formal ways of organizing ourselves, but perhaps grown a bit tired of this in recent decades.

We are less ambivalent, more comfortable with “communities,” aren’t we? It is striking to add “community” to that same Goggle NGram:

association, organization with communityIt shows the same pattern of rising at the turn of the century and continuing to rise after that. When “association” and “organization” begin to drift down around 1970, so does “community,”but then the use of the term takes another surge up, its use eclipsing all the other terms. It looks very much like “community” grows in parallel with “organization and “association” (not in opposition), though parts company from them more recently.

Also regarding “community,” is this a term we use to often, to embrace too many disparate things? Or is this a sign of something else?

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Meanings: Automation

January 21, 2014

XKCD hits the nail on the head (is that a metaphor slated to die soon?) about “automation” this week:automation

It made me wonder how long we have been using the term “automation” — how long we have been thinking in these terms. Clearly it is term of only recent use, but the Google NGram on “automation” is one of the most unusual I have ever seen.

NGram automation







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January 2, 2014

“Throughout the meal the two subjects remained the same: the superiority of entrepreneurs and the worthlessness of higher education.” from George Packer, The Unwinding (New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2013), p 397. The conversation being reported was among a group of Silicon Valley internet success moguls

the_unwinding-620x412There’s very little said about higher education in The Unwinding, this year’s National Book Award winner for nonfiction. But what it does say is searing and unflattering. Worth reading.

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Do Sports Build Character — Heisman Trophy Edition

December 6, 2013

“I think they handled it tremendous,” Fisher said of the team’s reaction to the Winston investigation. “I think it’s because they believe in each other. They trust in each other. They believe in what we’re doing here. They want to play for each other.”

That quotation is from Jimbo Fisher, coach of the Florida State Seminoles, about his team after the Florida Attorney General announced that no sexual assault charges would be filed against his star quarterback Jameis Winston. (A link to an ABC report containing the quotation is here; I saw a clip of Fisher saying this on ESPN’s Sports Center.) I’m struck by the double standard he voices in terms of what he expects from players on the field and off the field. And which do you think is the more important realm?

Put Fisher’s execrable grammar to one side. Fisher is praising his players’ commitment to one another: the respect they have for one another, and the trust they put in one another. To play well together as this Florida State team does (ranked number one in the polls), his players need to be committed to one another day in and day out. Fisher is praising his players for maintaining that attitude through the very public consideration of whether rape charges would be filed against Winston. And I take Fisher to be crediting the football program at FSU for instilling these values: that is “what we are doing here.”

But what about his players values off the field? Do they show respect for others? Are they steadfast in their commitments? Do they trust others and act in a trustworthy way?

We do not know what transpired between Winston and the unnamed young woman who made the accusation of rape. The Attorney General’s statement doesn’t clear Winston of responsibility; it simply says there was not sufficient evidence to have a high probability of finding him guilty in a court of law. Winston himself admits that there was a sexual encounter the night in question. He claims the encounter was “consensual.”

I have my doubts that “consensual” is the best term to characterize the encounter. The simple fact of her complaint makes that unlikely. But for the moment, let’s imagine that term as somehow appropriate. Let’s ask whether Jameis Winston showed respect for the young woman that night. Let’s ask whether he behaved in a trustworthy way. Let’s ask whether he showed commitment that can be expected to endure? These are the values Fisher wants to say his program is promoting in these young men. But to ask these questions is to answer them in the negative, each and every one.

So, again, I am struck at the complete disconnect in Jimbo Fisher’s mind. And his disconnection is just today’s exemplar of a disconnect that runs through big-time Division I athletics. Whatever the values ostensibly taught on the field, these character traits are not carried off the field.

In the next week, various sportswriters across the country will fill out ballots for this year’s Heisman Trophy winner, given each year through such voting to the best college football player in the nation. Jameis Winston has emerged as the odds-on favorite to win the award this year. Sports writers took it as axiomatic that if Winston had been charged with rape that he would not have won the Heisman. But now that he will not be charged, he appears again as the favorite.

Hasn’t done any serious crime for which he can be legally prosecuted: is that our measure of character? Or do we expect something more of young men and women when we single them out for honor?

Of course I don’t have a vote, but if I did, I wouldn’t vote for Jameis Winston to win the Heisman Trophy. Would you?

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Meanings: “Clinch”

October 30, 2013

clinker builtThe Red Sox can clinch the world championship tonight if they win tonight’s game. I’ve heard that via several news sources — print, TV, radio,web —  already this morning. Since they won their two recent World Series championships on the road, this would/will be the first they clinch at home in more than a century.

“Clinch” is a variant of “clench,” which comes from an Old English word meaning “hold fast.” From we have this:

clinch (v.) Look up clinch at

1560s, “clasp, interlock,” especially with a bent nail, variant of clench. The sense of “settle decisively” is first recorded 1716, from the notion of “clinching” the point of a nail to keep it fast. Boxing sense is from 1860. Related: Clinched; clinching.

Note the image of a bent nail: bent to make it hold fast. So in boat building, one speaks of a clinker-built boat. Sometimes you don’t want to bend a nail in driving it in, but sometimes you do, to make it hold even better.  Mentioned in the derivation is the boxing use, but not the use in other sports

During a regular season, in many sports, we speak of a team clinching the title when no other team can catch them by the end of the season: say a team has won two more games than its trailing opponent with only one to play. There will still be games played, but the team has clinched the title. They’ll have such a hold on the title that no one can wrest it from them, no matter what happens in the remaining games.

I’m not sure it is right to say that Boston might/will “clinch” the championship tonight. They might/will “win” it. But if they do, there will be no more games to play. “Clinching” makes sense when there are still more games to play, but not when they might/will walk off the field tonight as World Champions.

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