Dan K. Thomasson: Idealogues Squelch Freethinking at Commencement Speeches

May 20, 2014

By Dan K. Thomasson at Arizona Daily Star

While attending my oldest granddaughter’s graduation from a major Virginia university a year ago, I was somewhat curious about the lack of a commencement speaker. There was instead a six- or seven-minute statement by the dean of her particular college — the largest in the school —praising the newly minted graduates and wishing them luck.

I was told that because of the size of the class and ancillary requirements like the awarding of faculty and student academic honors, the school decided to forgo the usual celebrity pep talk. I accepted this as sensible and plausible, but suspected another reason was the difficulty these days of enlisting men and women of stature to make the traditional speech and receive an honorary degree — designed both to increase the school’s prestige and honor the person chosen.

The furor swirling around campuses this year is ample proof that tradition may be coming to an end with more and more colleges and universities deciding it may not be worth the potential embarrassment to the institution to engage a speaker who some view as too controversial.

According to the Washington Post and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, since 1987, there have been at least 145 instances in which speakers have withdrawn their names, had their invitations rescinded, or been the subject of protests.

The list seems to have grown exponentially in the last five years, with 100 such examples. For instance, in 2010, Butler University found John G. Roberts Jr., the chief justice of the United States and an Indiana native, too controversial to address its graduates. Earlier in 2008, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had the same issue with the school then known as College of St. Catherine.

This year, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice canceled her Rutgers University graduation appearance because of student and faculty protests, and other major figures like former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie as well as prominent academics from places like the University of California, Berkeley and Harvard have faced the same situation for past decisions or current policies.

I dare say that 99.9 percent of graduates don’t remember their commencement speeches 10 minutes after they shift their tassels. Their only thoughts naturally center on what comes next.

But there are larger issues here, not the least of which is the belief that college is a place for the exchange of all ideas, no matter how outlandish, to be accepted or rejected as one sees fit. That isn’t — at least as I was taught — limited to the classroom where the audience is captive, but extends also to those outside the academic circle who have a record of achievement.

In other words, the fact that a handful of student protesters or timid administrators or activist faculty members can deny access to the likes of the chief justice of the United States or the nation’s chief foreign policy experts, no matter whose presidential administration they served, is an assault on academic freedom second to none. Is there any greater hypocrisy? Furthermore, it is an insult to the students who are deprived of making their own judgment.

We’re not talking about peddlers of hate here or those who would advocate the return of slavery or preach sedition. It goes without saying that to give them a platform would be wrong. But these are people of solid prominence and expertise in their fields, who just might have a suggestion that would benefit a student audience.

My mother and father taught me that open-mindedness was crucial to success in any endeavor. “Listen and sort,” my mother used to say. “If you don’t like what you hear, reject it. If it makes sense, accept it as long as it isn’t a threat to civil order or the rights of others.” I always found that to be good advice.

I didn’t miss having to sit through a long address at my granddaughter’s commencement, but I would have done so politely.

Cases: Nationwide: Colleges Across the Country Disinvite Commencement Speakers