Controversy in Commencement Talks

Professor Sandra K. Soto’s commencement speech at the University of Arizona caused national commotion—she bitterly attacked the new Arizona immigration law—but not much discussion about whether controversial issues are appropriate in such talks. One common opinion, raised repeatedly in Professor Soto’s case, is that invited speakers should not impose their politics on a captive audience. Another is that invited speakers should not be expected to steer around their deeply held beliefs and just stick to the usual dreadful cliches—climb very mountain, today is the first day of the rest of your life, etc. The strongest reason for inviting any speaker is often that he or she stands for something and carries the message that conviction is important.
But there are rules, or should be. Much of a good commencement talk should be about the graduates, and speakers should remember that they are a minor act on a program about student success. Professor Soto passed this test easily. She talked at length about and to the new graduates. But on another test, she did not do nearly so well: speakers who take controversial stances should frame the issue fairly, and leave room for graduates and parents in the audience to disagree without being considered backward or bigoted. Her remark that the law “is considered the strictest anti-immigration legislation in the country” overlooks the fact that the measure is no stricter than existing federal law, and that the measure is anti-illegal immigration, not anti-immigration. Soto’s comment that “racial discord is being provoked not solved” is a bit much for a law not yet put into effect, and supported by three out of four Arizonans who have an opinion (72% in favor, 24% opposed, 6% no opinion–Rasmussen). It may be that the professor was misled by the “faculty-lounge effect”— as a group, college professors are so sure the law is terrible that when emerging from the academic cocoon, they often fail to notice that a huge majority is on the opposite side.
A good deal of soul-searching followed the commencement debacle in 2003 at Rockford College in Illinois. Anti-war activist and New York Times reporter Chris Hedges essentially ignored the graduates and launched into an unusually grating speech on America’s faults and how pleased he was that the U.S. had lost in Vietnam. The enraged crowd screamed in protest and twice someone pulled the plug on the sound system. Perhaps fearing a riot, the president of the college stepped in and stopped the speech. So it’s fair to say that the speaker, the audience and the president all behaved badly. The popular blogger James Lileks wrote that there’s nothing wrong with an anti-war speech, “but such a speech needs to persuade. It needs to draw the audience close, make eye contact. Crack a joke, wax colloquial, opine a bit, then bring it all back to the grads.” Most of all, controversial speeches need basic civility and an awareness that the day is about the students.

John Leo

John Leo is the editor of Minding the Campus, dedicated to chronicling imbalances within higher education and restoring intellectual pluralism to our American universities. His popular column, "On Society," ran in U.S.News & World Report for 17 years.

One thought on “Controversy in Commencement Talks”

  1. At my Lafayette College commencement speech, Ramsey Clark launched into a long tirade about the then-raging Vietnam War. I was furious and humiliated (my family was, of course, present) — but not so much at him, as at the people who had selected such a bigoted second-rater for our commencement speaker. That (and two other events — one of which was the subsequent dis-invitation of Jeanne Kirkpatrick) left such a bad taste in my mouth that I have never given any money to the college.
    My point is that much of the responsibility for a good, or bad, commencement speech rests with those who choose the speaker.

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