Christine Lagarde and Condoleezza Rice

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Essay on this year's controversies over commencement speakers

No Spines

May 20, 2014

A ritual of the spring commencement season in the United States is for colleges and universities to invite the most prominent speaker possible to their graduation ceremonies. These luminaries typically offer anodyne platitudes for the graduates and their parents, and, if they are sufficiently famous, the local media as well. This year, an unusual number of speakers have withdrawn from participation because campus groups have complained about their views or actions.

Recent casualties include Christine Lagarde, the head of the International Monetary Fund, who withdrew from Smith College’s ceremony when 477 students and faculty signed an online petition complaining about the IMF, and Robert Birgeneau, the former chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley who canceled at Haverford College, where 50 students and faculty members complained about his handling of student protests at Berkeley and demanded he agree to nine conditions, including apologizing and supporting reparations for the protesters. Several invited speakers have gotten into trouble because of their support of the Iraq war a decade ago, including former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at Rutgers University and (a year ago) Robert Zoellick, former World Bank head, at Swarthmore College.

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There are some counterexamples. Last year Jesuit-run Boston College did not pull the plug on Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny, despite pressure from some Roman Catholic leaders and a boycott of commencement by Cardinal Sean O’Malley. Some were peeved that Kenny’s government supported a bill legalizing abortion in Ireland. This year University of California Hastings College of Law in San Francisco stood by University of California President and former homeland security secretary Janet Napolitano, who was criticized by some students for her agency’s immigration deportations.

What’s the Problem?

Why should very small numbers of students and faculty cause commencement speakers to cancel and university administrators to fail to stand up for the speakers? Typically, the speaker says that he or she does not want to bring controversy to a festive occasion, and the administration responds: “We respect the speaker’s wish and, by the way, this does not reflect on our commitment to academic freedom.” A very small number of people, sometimes with rather bizarre complaints, cause an entire institution to change plans, generally for no good reason.

Speaker Fortitude Needed

While a few picketers and perhaps a bit of heckling may be unpleasant, especially on graduation day, most prominent speakers have experienced much worse. Unless there threatens to be a serious public safety problem, the speakers should honor their invitations, perhaps even reflecting on whatever controversy might occur in the talk. There is simply no reason to walk away from a bit of controversy. Indeed, the lesson for the graduates may be salutary.

Administrative Courage Desired

Administrators should try as hard as possible to convince the speaker to participate, ensure appropriate public safety support, and stand up for the principles of campus dialogue, free speech, and academic freedom. The fact is that permitting a small minority to dictate who can speak on campus is a violation of academic freedom and the important commitment of any university — to permit a range of views to be presented on campus.

Top administrators and the academic community in general have become so risk-averse that even a minor possibility of disruption can lead to giving up any battle for principle. Basic academic values need to be protected — campus speakers, including and perhaps especially commencement speakers must be assured that they can express their views. No doubt most of the speakers who decided to pull out commencement exercises this year were motivated by a desire not to make things difficult for the university or for themselves.

The Protesters

The campus community itself, including students and professors, must respect the right of the university to invite commencement speakers to campus and permit free speech on campus. The protesters often claim that commencement speakers are official representatives of the college. The speaker, they claim, has no right to address the commencement even if the topic of the talk has nothing to do with, for example, a war that ended a half-dozen years ago, or  if the speaker is affiliated with an organization, such as the International Monetary Fund, that may be unpopular among a small campus group. If students or faculty want to make their views about an individual, an event, idea, or organization made known, they can issue statements or even protest at the commencement, but it does not seem appropriate to demand that the university withdraw an invitation. This is especially the case for many commencement speakers, who are at least sometimes chosen with considerable campus input in the first place.

What Is To Be Done?

The current situation shows weakness by both the speakers and, especially, university leaders. It shows a remarkable lack of judgment and perspective by the “critics,” who try to blackball distinguished people for some past flaw or opinion. It is time for the higher education community to get some perspective and some backbone.

Bio

Philip G. Altbach is research professor and director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College.

 

 

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