Commencement Controversy at NYU

Ph.D. graduate's speech backing Israel boycott is condemned by leaders there and at Northwestern, which hired him. Some see academic freedom concerns, given that other political commencement addresses are not attacked.

May 31, 2019
 

Graduation and commencement speeches have frequently been an outlet for speakers to advocate for political positions, but a recent speech at New York University that expressed support for the controversial Israel boycott movement has now sparked debate over free speech on college campuses. While BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) debates are hardly new, the discussion has focused on the reaction to the address -- and giving the talk at commencement -- as much as its substance.

Steven Thrasher, who earned his doctoral degree and gave the student address at the NYU Graduate School of Arts and Sciences graduation event, said he was proud of the NYU student government for supporting the BDS movement -- a movement which calls for organizations to discontinue involvement with Israel.

“I am so proud, so proud of NYU’s chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voices for Peace … and of the NYU student government and of my colleagues in the department of social and cultural analysis for supporting the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against the apartheid state government in Israel,” Thrasher said.

Thrasher, who is starting a position at Northwestern University, soon drew criticism from NYU president Andrew Hamilton, who said in a statement after the event he found it inappropriate that "the student speaker chose to make use of the Graduate School of Arts and Science doctoral graduation to express his personal viewpoints on BDS.” Thrasher did not include the language about BDS in the draft version of the speech submitted to NYU before the ceremony, Hamilton added.

This statement sparked concern for author John K. Wilson who, in an “Academe” blog post, said Hamilton’s statement “confessed to some appalling violations of the principles of academic freedom and free speech on campus.” Wilson pointed to the fact that Thrasher had to submit a version of the speech before the ceremony as a violation of free speech.

Hamilton also said Thrasher’s remarks were “one-sided and tendentious” and that a graduation ceremony should be a “shared, inclusive event.”

Wilson said this was a “dangerous standard” to set for a graduation event.

“If this standard of feeling unwelcome due to political speech is applied to the classroom, campus speakers or any aspect of campus life, it would impose severe censorship on campus,” Wilson said.

A spokesman for NYU said that the statements from NYU officials "speak for themselves and address both the specific circumstances and the broader issues." The statements focus on the venue for the comments, and do not suggest that BDS is an inappropriate topic for discussion generally, even if NYU officials oppose BDS.

Thrasher also received criticism after the speech from critics who looked through older tweets of his and found several that some, including Hamilton, found to be anti-Semitic. These tweets included a comparison of Israel's government to the Nazi Party.

Inside Higher Ed reached out to Thrasher, and did not hear back.

Northwestern president Morton Schapiro and provost Jonathan Holloway also released a statement condemning Thrasher's expression of support for BDS during the speech and saying a graduation ceremony was not the appropriate setting to share political views. However, the statement said Northwestern supported Thrasher’s right to hold the opinion.

“Many were understandably offended by some of the comments made by Dr. Thrasher during his commencement speech at New York University earlier this week,” the statement read. “We do not share all of his views, nor do we feel commencement was the appropriate venue to express them. However, academic freedom assures his right to hold them.”

Wilson, who called Northwestern’s statement “disappointing,” said it was unusual for a university to make a statement condemning a faculty member’s opinion expressed off campus. Northwestern spokesman Jon Yates said the statement came as a result of “inquiries from members of the Northwestern community.”

It's far from uncommon for students, faculty and guest speakers to express any number of political views, including controversial ones, in a graduation speech. Hillary Clinton first gained prominence after criticizing a senator and the Vietnam War in a speech at Wellesley College in 1969. This year, former vice president Al Gore gave a speech at Harvard College’s Class Day in which he called on Harvard to divest from fossil fuels.

“When administrators publicly declare that a commencement ceremony (perhaps the most important event on campus symbolizing what a university represents) is off-limits to controversial speech, it sends a chilling effect across the entire campus,” Wilson said. “If commencement speakers with controversial ideas are to be no-platformed at these events, what’s to stop the administration from applying the same standards to allowing speakers on campus, or hiring faculty, or admitting students?”

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