The surging controversy over the University of Saskatchewan's firing of a dean who challenged administration policies claimed another person's job late Monday, as the institution's provost resigned hours before an emergency meeting called by the province's education minister, The Globe and Mail of Toronto reported. Brett Fairbairn, provost and vice president academic at Saskatchewan, said he was departing because of his "genuine interest in the well-being" of the university.
Advanced Education Minister Rob Norris, who called the emergency meeting, expressed the government’s "growing concern regarding the state" of the university, In a statement after the meeting, the chair of the university's Board of Governors, Susan Milburn, said that the board had "discussed the leadership of the university in depth. We do not want to act in haste and therefore we have not made any final decisions, other than to maintain our strong commitment to financial sustainability and renewal. We will conclude our due diligence before a decision is rendered on university leadership."
Robert Buckingham ignited the firestorm at Saskatchewan when he released a document recounting how Ilene Busch-Vishniac had warned him and fellow administrators in December that any public disagreement with the university's strategic plan would result in their firing. He was dismissed from both his deanship and his faculty position when he challenged aspects of the plan. Although he was later reinstated to his faculty post, the university has been harshly criticized for its actions.
This year should be the one when higher education at last comes to our collective senses about celebrity commencement speakers. The bread-and-circuses spectacle that commencement has become on too many campuses demeans the true purpose of the ceremony.
From former Princeton University President William G. Bowen chastising the Haverford protesters who objected to Robert J. Birgeneau’s invitation (declined), to Chef Jose Andres being the foil for a celebrity video clip at George Washington University, mocking the whole idea of celebrity speakers, commencement speeches have become all about the speakers (or the withdrawn or disinvited speakers) with hardly a word about the graduates.
Indeed, the silence of the invited speakers who have withdrawn, rather than face the discomfort of protest and disagreement, says more about the banal state of commencements today than all of the thousands of platitudes uttered by those who actually did speak this year.
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Celebrity commencement speaker controversies are hardly new. Decades before P. Diddy sported doctoral stripes on Howard University’s graduation stage, Dick Cavett was the speaker of choice, topping lists made by seniors in the 1970s who feared boredom, or worse, a serious lecture on the day that supposedly marked their highest intellectual achievement. Colleges indulged the popular speaker lists to appease students and gain publicity. Cavett, a genial talk show host in the mid-20th century, was in high demand for about a decade, addressing graduates at Yale University, Vassar College and Johns Hopkins University, among others.
But his 1984 speech at Yale provoked an angry response about the “Graduation from Hell” from Yale ’84 feminist writer Naomi Wolf for Cavett’s comments about Vassar women. Wolf’s comments came in her own commencement speech at Scripps College in 1992. Cavett replied in a New York Times letter that Wolf missed the obvious humor in his remarks, incurring a reply from a male letter writer, also Yale ’84, who condemned the whole thing as “boorish alumnus blather.”
At least the Cavett controversy included an actual speech and some spirited, even extenuated, public debate. Today’s “controversies” hardly amount to more than boorish behavior on both sides, with speakers withdrawing in fits of pique after learning of protests by campus constituents wielding the ire of entitlement to have only people with whom they agree speak to them on the big day. Muffling speech is the antithesis of what all that learning should have been about.
Some critics this year blame leftist politics for the protests against former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice at Rutgers and IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde at Smith. Such critics seem to have forgotten the truly hyperbolic right-wing frenzy over President Obama’s 2011 commencement appearance at the University of Notre Dame, and Secretary of Health and Human Service Kathleen Sebelius’s 2012 appearance at a diploma ceremony at Georgetown. Many people who denounce a Michael Bloomberg or Chris Christie on the graduation dais express umbrage over threats to academic freedom when a bishop stomps his crozier on a speaker choice.
Let’s stop the madness. Colleges and universities have 364 other days each year to invite celebrity speakers and gain the notoriety that comes with controversial speakers. The best result of this year’s speaker controversies might be a serious re-examination of the whole idea of commencement as a venue for commercial entertainment and institutional bragging rights, rather than a modestly festive-but-stately ceremony concluding a period of collegiate study.
What’s the point of a commencement speech?
The address should be a "last class" summation of learning, an exhortation to use that learning for social good, a beautifully crafted piece of short rhetoric that is, at once, celebratory and sobering for the graduates. The speech may be humorous, but not tawdry; serious, but not depressing. Respecting the occasion, the speech must respect intellectual achievement and not dumb down the moment. Shorter speeches are memorable for their message; longer speeches are mostly remembered for being long.
Who is the best person to deliver such a speech?
The commencement speaker should know the graduating class, know the college and be able to embed the institution’s values and shared experiences of the students in the remarks -- ideally a faculty member or a local community leader.
One of the greatest problems with celebrity speakers is that they tend to walk onto the stage cold, knowing little about the students they are speaking to, delivering an address that might even have been given at another university in the previous week.
As the ongoing speaker controversies reveal, the whole point of the commencement speech has become subrogated to the identity of the speaker. Speech controversies arise because both institutions and students put more emphasis on who the speaker is --- preferably a very famous celebrity --- than on what the speaker is supposed to say. Consequently, the very identity of the speaker becomes the flashpoint before the person has uttered a single word.
Colleges and universities reap what they sow when the celebrity of the speaker becomes more important than the purpose of commencement. The time has come to restore the idea of the celebration of academic achievement to center stage on graduation day. Turning commencement into a sideshow of anger and recrimination is no way to end a student’s academic experience.
Patricia McGuire is president of Trinity Washington University.
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.
The topic was one of several
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@ Inside Higher Ed, our new
audio discussion of the week's
top headlines. Listen here.
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 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.
Philip G. Altbach is research professor and director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College.
At the 25 public universities where presidents earn the most, student debt is rising faster than at other public universities, according to a report issued Sunday evening by the Institute for Policy Studies. The report also found that they are increasing the use of non-tenure-track faculty members at rates greater than those of other state universities.
A new study in the Journal of the American Medical Association finds changes in the brains of college football players -- with and without a history of a concussion, Reuters reported. Compared to men who did not play college football, football players had smaller hippocampuses, a part of the brain critical to memory. Researchers said that the findings could be significant because these changes were found for those finishing college. Many other studies on the impact of football on the brain have examined long-term professional players, while the new study suggests the potential for real damage before a player leaves college.
Robert Buckingham was fired as dean of the public health school -- and banned from campus -- at the University of Saskatchewan this week because he spoke out publicly against a controversial reorganization plan, CBC News reported. A statement from the university provost did not dispute the reason for the dismissal, saying: "It is not open to anyone to wear the hat of a leader and a non-leader simultaneously." The specific act that got him fired was releasing a statement called "The Silence of the Deans" that explored the many reasons to oppose the university administration's plans, and suggested more people should be speaking out.
The Canadian Association of University Teachers issued a statement backing Buckingham: "The outrageous firing of the University of Saskatchewan dean undermines the very basis of the university. What the president of the University of Saskatchewan has done is an embarrassment to the traditions and history of the University of Saskatchewan and it is an embarrassment to post-secondary education across Canada. It’s inexcusable. Buckingham should be reinstated immediately and U. of S. President Ilene Busch-Vishniac should issue a public apology. The Canadian Association of University Teachers, along with our member association, the University of Saskatchewan Faculty Association, are going to do everything possible to see that this injustice is remedied."
Haverford College announced Tuesday that Robert Birgeneau, the former chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley, had decided not to deliver the commencement address there. Some students had objected because of the way Berkeley campus police responded to some protests while Birgeneau was chancellor. Critics said that nonviolent protesters were treated much more roughly than was appropriate. In a letter to Haverford students and faculty members, President Daniel Weiss noted that Birgeneau took many significant actions at Berkeley, including an effort to help undocumented students that he planned to discuss at Haverford. "It is nonetheless deeply regrettable that we have lost an opportunity to recognize and hear from one of the most consequential leaders in American higher education," Weiss wrote. "Though we may not always agree with those in positions of leadership, I believe that it is essential for us as members of an academic community to reaffirm our shared commitment to the respectful and mindful process by which we seek to learn through inquiry and intellectual engagement."