It's Memorial Day. Few of us are working. Most colleges and universities have gone into summer mode. And yet, tragedy has landed on our doorsteps once again. I actually had to Google "Newtown" to remind myself when that tragic set of murders had occurred (it was December 14, 2012). And every day since, on average, 289 people have been shot in this country. Eighty-six of those shot die from gunshot wounds. Let's do the math. That's over 150,000 shot and nearly 50,000 killed.
While these victims come from all parts of American society, colleges and universities are among the places that have mourned the dead – from Virginia Tech to the University of California at Santa Barbara. And college campuses have been where many pro-gun activists have sought, many of them successfully, to fight gun control.
Today, there are far more guns in people's hands in America than there were even 18 months ago. Over 200 million guns in the hands of individual Americans presumably keep us safe, and yet if more guns were the answer, we certainly wouldn't be seeing the number of gun-related deaths that we do.
Eighteen months ago, hundreds of college and university presidents came forward together and called for saner gun laws in this country. There are at least two things remarkable about that activism. First, it represented a rare moment for the leaders of institutions of higher education -- one in which we chose to speak out collectively on an issue of public importance only tangentially related to our primary mission of education. Second, at the national level and in many states like my own, Georgia, it didn't appear many legislators listened. As just one example, churches in Georgia have now been given the ability to welcome parishioners into their sanctuaries armed, locked and loaded.
We presidents have been largely silent since Newtown, on the issue of gun regulation and on most other significant issues facing our country – at least those issues not directly related to college budgets. The gun safety movement sparked a good bit of discussion among my colleagues on a president's role in the public discourse. I've certainly heard both sides of that issue expressed, even by my own Board of Trustees. Yet I still come out on the side of Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, former president of the University of Notre Dame, who memorably said, "How can we encourage students to speak out unless we have the courage to do so ourselves"? I received a personal note from Father Hesburgh, thanking me for being willing to set an example for our students, but most importantly, I felt I had given my colleagues and myself an opportunity to find our voice.
Which brings me to my next question: Is it time for us to speak out again?
Last night, in an almost unbearable news conference Richard Martinez, father of a beautiful, friendly, promising and now-slain 20-year old student at the University of California at Santa Barbara, Christopher Martin-Martinez, had this to say:
“Why did Chris die? Chris died because of craven, irresponsible politicians and the N.R.A. They talk about gun rights. What about Chris’s right to live? When will this insanity stop? When will enough people say, ‘Stop this madness; we don’t have to live like this?’ Too many have died. We should say to ourselves: not one more.”
When I was starting College Presidents for Gun Safety, one of the concerns I heard was the idea there were just too many issues on which to articulate an opinion. Where would it stop? Where would we draw the line? In light of this latest tragedy, on a college campus that could have been any of ours, I would say: "We are nowhere near the line yet. Let's worry about that one when we get closer."
Lawrence Schall is president of Oglethorpe University.
In his commencement speech last weekend at Haverford College, the former president of Princeton University, William G. Bowen, attempted to shame some students at Haverford for challenging the invitation to the former University of California at Berkeley Chancellor, Robert Birgeneau, to deliver the commencement address and receive an honorary degree. Bowen did not scold us for protesting, but rather for protesting incorrectly. As a new alumnus involved in those efforts as a then-senior at Haverford, I stand by our actions. Bowen should too.
In his much-discussed commencement speech, Bowen said, “Let me be clear at the outset that I am not judging the controversy over Bob Birgeneau’s handling of unrest at Berkeley. I have neither the facts nor the inclination to do so.” And yet, Bowen did feel that he had the facts and the inclination to address our methods of challenging Birgeneau.
On November 9, 2011, while Birgeneau was still chancellor, police beat and injured Occupy Cal protesters at Berkeley. Birgeneau supported UC Berkeley police in the use of extreme force against nonviolent protesters, asserted that linking arms is not a form of nonviolent protest, and suggested that the protesters got exactly what they were looking for. While Birgeneau did eventually apologize and claim to accept responsibility for the actions of his police, it reads like a half-hearted apology and does not address his point about protesters being “not nonviolent,” and the report he commissioned about the incident notes that not enough steps have been taken to make sure that such an attack does not happen again. Birgeneau’s role in and response to these protests do not fit with Haverford’s values expressed values of mutual trust, concern and respect.
I and other students and faculty were deeply disturbed by those beatings as well as Birgeneau’s response to them. We questioned the wisdom of awarding an honorary degree to Birgeneau at this time, unless he could show us that he was working to make amends. We decided to write Birgeneau a letter.
We wrote to him, “When trust is violated in our community, we seek to restore our bonds through restorative, not punitive, processes. Restoration involves a full accounting of one’s violation, and, ultimately, we return to wholeness through action. In the spirit of these restorative processes, before you are honored by our community, we believe it is necessary for you to do more than offer a brief apology. We ask you to use this opportunity to take responsibility for the events of November 9th not just by apologizing with words, but by taking substantive action.”
Our letter has been characterized in the press as a list of demands, but what we were trying to do was suggest ways that Bowen could make amends. If Birgeneau did not do at least some of the things we urged him to do or show us that our claims against him were mistaken, we, with no power to make an actual decision on the matter, would ask Haverford to rescind his invitation.
It became clear that Birgeneau would not do as we had hoped and Haverford would not rescind his invitation, and we began plans to protest during commencement. The protest would be nondisruptive and largely symbolic. We did not want to ruin commencement for our families or other students. We ordered buttons that said, “Ask me about Robert Birgeneau” and considered turning our backs when Birgeneau spoke. Before we could decide on a final plan of action, Birgeneau withdrew from the event.
Bowen went on to call us “arrogant” and “immature” for our methods: Writing Birgeneau a letter to suggest possible remedies to our concerns about his receipt of an honorary degree, noting in the letter that we were considering asking Haverford College to rescind his invitation, and telling Haverford College President Dan Weiss and the press that some students and faculty would protest at commencement in a nondisruptive manner if Birgeneau did receive an honorary degree.
Bowen cited two shining examples of “better” protests of honorary degree recipients. First was the case of George Shultz at Princeton in 1973, when Shultz was President Nixon’s secretary of the treasury. The other was President Obama at the University of Notre Dame in 2009.
As Bowen tells it, many Princeton students objected to having Shultz as that year’s honorary degree recipient, and they expressed that view during commencement by standing up and turning their backs to Shultz. A nonviolent, silent protest. Bowen concluded, “Princeton emerged from this mini-controversy more committed than ever to honoring both the right to protest in proper ways and the accomplishments of someone with whose views on some issues many disagreed.”
But that’s not the whole story. Like Haverford students, many Princeton students also wanted to rescind their speaker’s invitation. They held a vote of the student body, with over 60 percent of voters saying that they did not want to hear Shultz at commencement. Representatives of the student body took that vote to Princeton’s Board of Trustees and urged them to reconsider the invitation. Clearly, students only protested as a last resort when the university declined their request to rescind Shultz’s invitation.
In the case of Notre Dame, Bowen focused on how a retired president of the university spoke out in defense of awarding Obama an honorary degree and noted that Notre Dame showed itself to be a place where people could “discuss controversial issues and learn from each other.” There, the majority of protesters were not students or faculty. Most students were supportive of Obama’s presence. The administration sided with the will of the students, and some of the minority who disagreed disrupted the ceremony with heckling.
At Haverford, students were not in consensus on Birgeneau’s invitation (we try to do things by consensus at Haverford). Our president held an open forum where over 100 people from all sides came together to peacefully discuss the Birgeneau controversy with one another, and those of us who disagreed with the invitation promised not to disrupt the ceremony. The situations at Notre Dame and Haverford are apples and oranges, and I can’t figure out why Bowen brought up Notre Dame in contrast to Haverford except to applaud a case where protesters were unsuccessful.
Bowen seems to have a selective memory. Our situation was quite different from Notre Dame’s, and we acted essentially the same as students and faculty at Princeton, except we gave Birgeneau a chance to prove us wrong before condemning him, we never ended up asking Haverford to rescind Birgeneau’s invitation and we did not have the chance to protest silently because Birgeneau decided not to show up.
Bowen misses the point of commencement protests: Honorary degrees are essentially awards, and commencement protests are about asking that the award go to someone who deserves it. We hoped that either Birgeneau would show us he was worthy of receiving an honorary degree, or that he would not receive one. Our goals were to defend the honor of Haverford College and act in solidarity with the Occupy Cal protesters. Protesting during commencement itself was a last resort to achieve just one of those goals.
Dr. Bowen, where did we go wrong? Is it our success that offends you? Perhaps you would have been happier with our methods if we had failed.
Michael Rushmore is a recent graduate of Haverford College.
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.
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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.