Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg delivered a barnburner of a commencement speech last Thursday at Harvard University. In a widely-noted address, Bloomberg, who received an honorary degree, roundly denounced the phenomenon FIRE has labeled “disinvitation season.”
Speaking just a day after FIRE released its definitive report on the increasing numbers of “disinvitations” on campuses nationwide, Bloomberg called the trend “disturbing”:
This spring, it has been disturbing to see a number of college commencement speakers withdraw, or have their invitations rescinded, after protests from students and — to me, shockingly — from senior faculty and administrators who should know better.
It happened at Brandeis, Haverford, Rutgers and Smith. Last year, it happened at Swarthmore and Johns Hopkins. In each case, liberals silenced a voice and denied an honorary degree to individuals they deemed politically objectionable.
As a former chairman of Johns Hopkins, I believe that a university’s obligation is not to teach students what to think, but to teach students how to think. And that requires listening to the other side, weighing arguments without prejudging them, and determining whether the other side might actually make some fair points.
If the faculty fails to do this, then it is the responsibility of the administration and governing body to step in and make it a priority. If they do not, if students graduate with ears and minds closed, the university has failed both the student and society.
FIRE fully agrees. Bloomberg also warned against the danger posed by silencing ideas with which one disagrees:
Universities lie at the heart of the American experiment in democracy. They are places where people of all backgrounds and beliefs can come to study and debate their ideas freely and openly. I’d like to talk with you about how important it is for that freedom to exist for everyone, no matter how strongly we may disagree with another’s viewpoint.
Tolerance for other people’s ideas and the freedom to express your own are inseparable values. Joined, they form a sacred trust that holds the basis of our democratic society. But that trust is perpetually vulnerable to the tyrannical tendencies of monarchs, mobs and majorities. And lately, we have seen those tendencies manifest themselves too often, both on college campuses and in our society.
We cannot deny others the rights and privileges that we demand for ourselves; that is true in cities, and it is no less true at universities, where the forces of repression appear to be stronger now than they have been since the 1950s.
There is an idea floating around college campuses — including here at Harvard — that scholars should be funded only if their work conforms to a particular view of justice. There’s a word for that idea: censorship. And it is just a modern-day form of McCarthyism.
Again, FIRE fully agrees, and we applaud Bloomberg’s focus on the culture of censorship present on too many campuses nationwide. We hope his message resonates far and wide.