An Embarrassing Commencement Season

When student activists tried to block some commencement speakers this year, conservatives generally denounced these efforts as censorship. Sure, these protesters were mostly aligned with the campus left, a group that has historically attempted to stifle free speech. These efforts were consistent with the decades of illiberality on our college campuses, a subject we and our friends at FIRE and NAS have covered for years.

However, the basic argument of the protesters contained a defensible value. When universities invite high-profile commencement speakers, they’re not simply inviting them to express opinions or create good publicity for the campus. They are presumably being put forth as embodiments of the values the universities and their students stand for. It’s tacky to try “disinviting” commencement speakers on partisan grounds, and this is always a temptation in the monoculture that our campuses have become. But there must be some room to argue against some commencement speakers–preferably before they are invited.

Blocking the Oppressors

Before defending the protesters, we must first acknowledge the deep illiberality of their efforts. In general, they tried to shut out speakers for their political convictions and complicity in direct or indirect “oppression.” For these protesters, nothing short of moral purity—as they defined it—would suffice for the commencement podium.

Though campus activists tend to lean left, the protesters blocked speakers from both left- and right-wing backgrounds, albeit all for left-wing reasons. To that end, though students at Rutgers tried to bar Condoleezza Rice for instigating the Iraq War, their peers at Smith College protested against the choice of International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde for her complicity in expanding international trade. Likewise, protesters at Haverford College decried the selection of former University of California chancellor Robert Birgeneau, who is otherwise liberally inclined, for his “half-hearted apology” over rough campus police handling of “Occupy Cal” protests that got out of hand at Berkeley.

For the first time in a long time, the mainstream media and influential public figures expressed alarm over the university’s turn to censorship. Former Princeton PresidentWilliam G. Bowen, taking Birgeneau’s place at Haverford, lambasted the student protesters, arguing that their “victory” was actually a defeat for the concepts of “openness…and mutual respect.” Speaking at Harvard, Michael Bloomberg went a few steps further, comparing the faculty and student protestors to McCarthyites who favored “censorship and conformity.” Indeed, he noted, their efforts “undermine[] the whole purpose of a university.”

On a similar note, Daily Beast political reporter Olivia Nuzzi, who formerly served as Anthony Weiner’s intern, argued that her fellow millennials should “STFU” since “The entire point of college is to be exposed to different things.”  New York Times columnist Timothy Egan, no friend of Republicans, wrote a piece entitled “The Commencement Bigots,” where he decried the “lefty thought police” for evincing an “extremism” that was “the worst enemy of free speech.”

While they were correct in pointing to the censorious tendencies of today’s students, they all assumed that commencement speeches are just like any other speech delivered on a university campus. But this is certainly not the case.

The Meaning of Commencement

Honorary degrees, and their attendant commencement addresses, give the impression that the university community supports the honorees’ life and works without reservation. Of course, this can never be the case, and when granted to controversial figures, it’s especially untrue.

To be sure, the protests against Lagarde, Rice, and Birgeneau were hyperbolic. There, student and faculty protesters employed demagoguery to block speakers they found objectionable. Indeed, their arguments were hyperbolic, implicating the honorees in awful consequences far beyond their control and dismissing the honorees’ many positive achievements. However, conservatives and liberal advocates for free speech should acknowledge that not every high-profile figure, even those who have done great good, should represent the university community at commencement.

Take the case of Ayaan Hirsi Ali at Brandeis. Hirsi Ali was invited to receive an honorary degree for her important work in raising awareness of women’s marginalization throughout the developing world. Subsequent to the invitation, however, Brandeis’ administration found out that she’s unrepentantly called for the obliteration of Islam, which she describes as “a destructive, nihilistic cult of death.” They promptly disinvited her.

Conservatives pounced on the disinvitation as another instance of the politically correct university run amok. However, the case was more complicated. Brandeis was founded for Jewish students shut out of mainstream American institutions, and its administration was justified in taking a strong, public stance against Hirsi Ali’s vitriolic statements against Islam—a sometimes embattled minority in this country.

Cries of “free speech” do not justify honorary degrees for advocates of destroying entire religious or ethnic groups, especially when universities are comprised of the very groups these advocates hope to see destroyed. Hirsi Ali should be allowed to speak at Brandeis, but not as the representative of the student body, which includes a strong Muslim community. Her appearance at commencement would’ve demeaned it.

What’s Next?

However, if universities value free speech—which is, to be sure, not a given—they must continue to invite speakers whom some students find objectionable. It’s important that students be exposed who have taken controversial stands.  Universities should send a lesson: great people are oftentimes very objectionable.

One suspects, however, that the opposite will occur, and that this past year’s events will lead to less controversial commencements. Given this year’s high-profile withdrawals, it seems likely that invited speakers will think twice about accepting in the future. And of course, it’s hard to blame them. Student activists will only feel emboldened by the success of their peers at Rutgers, Smith, and Haverford, and it’s likely that we’ll see many more disinvitation protests next year.

The downside to non-controversial commencements is obvious. As Timothy Egan noted, “if every speaker has to pass a test for benign mediocrity and politically correct sensitivity, commencement stages will be home to nothing but milquetoasts.” This might seem like a positive development after this year’s set of embarrassments, but in the long run, students will lose out.

2 thoughts on “An Embarrassing Commencement Season

  1. In 1961 I elected not to endure a tiresome commencement speech while sitting in the hot sun in a black gown and had them mail me the diploma so I didn’t have to smear hors d’oeuvres all over it for the rest of the day.

    Can’t imagine why ANYONE wants to go to one.

    A protest march on any side sounds like so much more fun.

  2. The author’s disinformation within the Hirsi Ali section is quite astounding; not to mention the misplaced apologetic sympathy.

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