A college commencement is a splendid time to celebrate student achievement. But it’s “disinvitation season” again, as the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education observes: the time when intolerant students and faculty advocate against their school’s choice of commencement speaker, sometimes causing the speaker to be disinvited.
These power-hungry protesters demonstrate how little they have learned about tolerance in a diverse society where people say and do things that others dislike. And all too often, as at Harvard and at Rutgers, they have learned this intolerance from their own professors.
Is former New York mayor Michael R. Bloomberg so evil that there is no room for him on Harvard’s Tercentenary Theatre stage? Some students think so, arguing that because they disagree with him on important issues such as “stop-and-frisk,” they feel excluded: “the negative reaction to his selection has, understandably, been intensely personal. … [O]ur lived experiences inform our emotions.”
It would be a shame if Harvard University’s commencement were to pretend that the rest of the real world were all rainbows and unicorns–as though it were students’ last chance to stay within the bubble. It is an even bigger shame that Harvard students have learned intolerance from Harvard professors.
In an almost self-parodying opinion piece in The Harvard Crimson, a student advocated for the end of free inquiry in the name of “academic justice.” Why “put up with research that counters our goals”? She recalled a dark day for free speech–to her, a bright day–when Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences effectively fired one of its own, Subramanian Swamy, in 2011 because of an op-ed he published in India that had zero to do with his Harvard teaching.
It was far from the only example she could have used. Feelings have long trumped rationality in certain areas of Harvard Law School, including the dean’s office. FIRE’s Harvey Silverglate tells story after story of deans and faculty members teaching students that certain ideas–even certain areas of academic study–are simply off the table if they seem too hurtful.
These stories include the 2005 hysteria over Harvard president Lawrence H. Summers, who was severely criticized for exploring ideas about gender in a way that made others uncomfortable. Summers himself thus became the victim of a disinvitation by the University of California in 2007. No matter what good Mr. Summers may have done in and for the world and for Harvard, narrow-minded and anti-intellectual protesters choose to harp on their one or two favorite notes of protest.
Making matters worse, Harvard’s leadership on the world stage emboldens intolerant faculty elsewhere, whether the influence is direct or indirect. At Rutgers University, hundreds of faculty members have been protesting against the university’s decision that former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice be commencement speaker.
Intolerant teachers like many at Harvard and Rutgers are leading students down a dark path of anti-intellectual injustice. They are producing a generation of intolerant students who welcome the use of a university’s power to shut down and shut out the people and ideas they hate.