Walking a Tightrope on Controversial Speakers

Knowing when and how to publicly disavow and disagree with a campus speaker is a skill all college presidents need. Experts say timing and tone are key.

May 16, 2018
 

Growing criticism about a controversial commencement address at Sweet Briar College has prompted a debate about how college or university presidents should respond when speakers at campus events offend members of the student body and others in the audience.

Widespread criticism of the comments made last Saturday by the speaker, Nella Gray Barkley, raised pointed questions about how Sweet Briar president Meredith Woo reacted to the speech. More broadly, it provoked a discussion of whether college presidents have an obligation to promptly and unequivocally challenge, correct or disagree with a speaker who makes comments that run counter to the stated values of the institution.

A similar situation occurred last month at the University of Portland, when a sexist speech by a male student led some female athletes and university officials, but not the president, to walk out of an awards banquet honoring university athletes. The president, the Reverend Mark L. Poorman, soon found himself under fire and quickly apologized for not having done more in the moment.

For some Sweet Briar graduates, a commencement speech they viewed as dismissive of feminism and of sexual assault and harassment was made worse by an email Woo sent out the next day that many viewed as passive and ambiguous. The email noted the controversy but did not challenge the remarks that were made. The critics said that the speech and the college's weak reaction to it sent the wrong message, particularly at a women's college.

Among other things, Barkley, a 1955 graduate of Sweet Briar and founder of a career-counseling company, said she was in "partial sympathy" with the Me Too movement but did not have sympathy for women who report being summoned to a boss's hotel room.

"I have little patience with the woman who arrives breathlessly at her boss's hotel room for a so-called conference," she said. "What did she think was going to happen?"

She also told graduates that "it is you who makes the ground rules" in future careers and that it was "only natural for men from Mars to follow the shortest skirt in the room."

“I believe the president is a moral leader of the university and partially her own moral compass as a leader of the campus and what the campus should stand for. I know it’s difficult, but I’d like them to be more bold about standing up for the values the campus espouses.” -- Mark G. Yudof

Woo’s critics said she should have at least offered an alternative narrative to Barkley’s comments and expounded on the culture and philosophical outlook of the women’s college.

Various college presidents said they sympathized with Woo and understood that she was in a tenuous position. Although they agreed that being president requires walking a diplomatic tightrope and balancing being courteous to an invited guest and respecting differences of opinion, their views widely varied on whether or not Woo should have done more.

“I think it shouldn’t be necessary for the president to do anything if you’ve established a culture of free speech that is valued and promotes a diversity of ideas,” said Kent John Chabotar, former president of Guilford College and a professor of political science.

He said he would not have done anything in response to the speech at Sweet Briar because “while a speech may offend me and others in the room, there may also be sympathizers in the room.”

He added that “it would take a lot to interrupt the speaker or say something afterward.”

Chabotar said the speech at Portland met that bar and was “way over-the-top.”

He said he would have taken swift action in that case by interrupting the speaker and informing him that he “was crossing the line” and “either change your tone or I advise you to get off the stage.”

If the speaker did not comply, he said, “Then I’d probably shut it down.”

A former college president who did not want to be named said that while the commencement speaker put Woo in a tough spot, she could have found ways around it.

“It’s obviously very delicate for a college president to be in the position of criticizing an alumna, much less a potential donor, but at the same time if the speaker says something contrary to the basic values of the institution, the president should say something,” the former president said. “Presidents find themselves having to make such judgment calls all the time and in turn they are judged by the quality of those judgments. But I think that the governing principle is that they need to speak for the values of their institution.”

The former college president said Woo could have defended Sweet Briar’s core principles by gently and respectfully admonishing Barkley during the commencement ceremony, without saying outright that “our speaker is wrong.”

“She might have said something like ‘I appreciate hearing the perspective of our speaker and the mores of decades ago when she was a student. Today we’re proud to say it’s not incompatible to be a feminist and to be in a happy marriage,’” the former college president said. “She could have also said, ‘I’m happy to say that today Sweet Briar graduates understand that wearing a certain kind of dress or going to a professional meeting, even in a hotel room, does not make them compliant in their victimhood.’”

By doing so, Woo would “graciously reject the victim-blaming and anti-feminist statements of the speaker.” Instead, Woo issued a statement “that really skirted and danced around the issue” and gave the controversy more traction.

Another college president who also did not want to be named agreed.

That president said Woo could have responded to Barkley this way: “Thank you for sharing your perspective. I see how this issue has developed and changed over the years … I’m glad that our graduates are going out into a world where their rights are going to be respected.”

The former president said this response works on two levels: “By saying this you’re not taking her on, but you’re making it clear that you disagree.”

Mark G. Yudof, former president of the University of California and the University of Minnesota, said taking such stands is not always easy but is sometimes necessary.

“I believe the president is a moral leader of the university and partially her own moral compass as a leader of the campus and what the campus should stand for,” he said. “I know it’s difficult, but I’d like them to be more bold about standing up for the values the campus espouses.”

Still, he noted that sometimes college presidents should hold their tongues.

“When I was president there was lots of stuff with which I disagreed, but I didn’t speak out every time,” he said. “I think it’s appropriate for the president to set the moral tone, but you can’t speak out every day, otherwise the moral force of the office is gone.”

Yudof, also a former law professor at UC Berkeley who prides himself “on not wanting to shut down speech” with which he disagrees, recalled speaking out when Louis Farrakhan Sr., the controversial leader of the Nation of Islam religious group, spoke at Berkeley.

“I said I disagreed with his views and his homophobia and anti-Semitism,” Yudof said.

Another college president who also did not want to be named said it’s much harder to take a forceful stand when you know everyone is not on the same page.

“There are sometimes situations where you really have think about when to take on these issues because you’re quite likely going to be criticized whichever way you go,” the president said. “You always, always want to model open-mindedness, respectfulness and civility.

“But it’s a tricky moment when you are caught off guard. You want to show respect for the speaker and you want to respect the fact that people in the audience have different views. You don’t want to get involved in every petty issue, but there are times you have to stand up for the values of the college.”

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