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Harvard School of Ed Dean Responds to Calls to Disinvite Commencement Speaker

By May 20, 2014

At the height of “disinvitation season,” it should come as no great surprise that some students and faculty at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education (HGSE) are asking the school to rescind its invitation to planned commencement speaker and Colorado State Senator Michael Johnston. But yesterday, HGSE Dean James Ryan, who selected Johnston for the event, wrote a thoughtful and thorough response to the community standing by his invitation and arguing that commencement speakers should be selected not on ideology, but instead on “whether the person has something of genuine interest and significance to express to our community.”

Johnston’s critics pointed to his focus on “test-based accountability” and held him responsible for “weakening the due process protections of teachers.” Having Johnston speak, they said, sends the message that HGSE “value[s] the voices of policymakers … over those of teachers, students, and community members.” In his letter, Ryan encourages community members to voice their objections to Johnston’s ideas. “To insist on agreement” about Johnston’s strategies, he writes, “would be to insist on orthodoxy, and that sort of insistence runs counter to the very notion of academic freedom.”

But Ryan distinguishes this sort of counter-speech from requests that Johnston be disinvited from campus, and explains why the latter is not an appropriate step.

[S]electing Senator Johnston as a speaker does not mean that my colleagues and I agree with every position he has espoused, either personally or as a legislator.  Nor does it mean that HGSE, as an institution, is endorsing the positions or opinions taken or espoused by Senator Johnston or any other invited speaker.  Universal assent cannot be the expectation or the standard used to assess potential speakers, as no speaker would pass a test that requires our entire community to agree with every stance that speaker has taken over his or her career.

Ryan illustrates his careful consideration of the interests at stake in addressing the argument that commencement ceremonies are inherently unique because they are not set up for debate between the speaker and his or her audience:

The challenge of course, and it is a real one, is in the nature of the event.  Those who disagree with the speaker will not have an opportunity, at the moment, to engage in a debate, nor is convocation an easy setting in which to stage a formal debate.  …  This does not mean, however, that those who speak at convocation — or anywhere else, for that matter — will have the last word, especially in today’s world of online comments and social media.  The hope — my hope — is that we will have speakers who challenge us and provoke a discussion and debate that will continue long after the event is over.  This is often the case, even when discussions on campus are structured as debates or forums, since rare is the discussion or forum when all perspectives are voiced and given equal time.  The hope and belief is that speakers start, continue, or add to conversations, not end them, and that those in the audience, whether they have an opportunity to respond immediately or not, will have the opportunity to test their own views and either relax or sharpen their opposition.

Indeed, Ryan’s invitation to Johnston has already sparked a conversation about his positions on various issues, as is evident from the comments on the article to which Ryan linked. Ryan emphasizes, too, the many opportunities for debate that HGSE has provided for its students. The school hosted almost 90 speakers this year alone, including an earlier event at which Johnston “participated in an open conversation on campus to which the entire community was invited.”

Dean Ryan’s letter contains precisely the advocacy for robust debate that FIRE hopes to see from college and university administrators. His reflection on the practical, educational, and moral reasons for his decision to have Johnston speak despite protests is praiseworthy. Read the rest of the letter on HGSE’s website.

Schools: Harvard University Cases: Nationwide: Colleges Across the Country Disinvite Commencement Speakers