How US College Graduation Season Became a Political Minefield

May 20, 2014

By Nick O’Malley at The Sunday Morning Herald

In the United States it is graduation season, which means across the country leading universities have spent the past few months trying to secure commencement speakers of significant enough stature to justify fees that reach $65,000 a year.

Traditionally commencement speakers have offered graduating classes sage advice on how to chart a course in the adult world. This year the first adult decision many of these graduating classes have made has been to object to their commencement speakers, causing many universities – and speakers – significant frustration.

Student protesters have proved particularly effective in silencing prominent women.

The International Monetary Fund’s chief Christine Lagarde was to have addressed the graduating class of Smith College but withdrew after an online petition started by students protesting the IMF’s “imperialist and patriarchal systems” attracted 500 signatures.

The former secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, had been invited to speak at Rutgers College graduation but cancelled last Saturday after students protested due to her involvement with the Iraq war.

“Commencement should be a time of joyous celebration for the graduates and their families,” she said via a statement. “Rutgers’ invitation to me to speak has become a distraction for the university community at this very special time.

”I am honoured to have served my country,” she added. “I have defended America’s belief in free speech and the exchange of ideas. These values are essential to the health of our democracy.”

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born writer and activist was to have received an honorary degree at the Brandeis University graduation but the honour was rescinded after students and some faculty protested due to her criticisms of Islam.

“We cannot overlook that certain of her past statements are inconsistent with Brandeis University’s core values,” the university said in a statement released after it had already announced that she would be honoured at its commencement ceremony on Sunday.

Robert J. Birgeneau, former chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley has stepped aside as commencement speaker and declined an honorary doctorate at Haverford College. Students there had raised concerns about his leadership at UC when force was used to disperse students associated with the Occupy movement protesting against fee increases.

Protesting against commencements speakers is not a new phenomenon. The decision in 2012 by Georgetown University of Georgetown to invite Kathleen Sebelius, then the Obama administration’s health secretary,  prompted William Blatty – an alumnus best know for writing the novel The Exorcist – to protest to the Vatican that Georgetown be stripped of the labels Catholic and Jesuit because she supported abortion rights.

Way back in 1996, Southampton College sought to court stardom but avoid controversy by having Kermit the Frog make its commencement address, but not even that worked. ”I’ve been here labouring for five years and now we have a sock talking at our commencement,” one graduate said, according to The New York Times.

Over the years Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, conservative commentator Ann Coulter, Dick Cheney, Mitt Romney and Hillary Clinton have all faced protest or been uninvited as speakers.

This year, though, so many prominent speakers have been forced to stand aside that there has been a significant backlash, particularly among conservative commentators who believe universities have been cowed by left-leaning thought police.

“There’s no two ways about it, and it’s something that I consider myself politically liberal but it’s just a fact: you are more likely to withdraw your name or be successfully disinvited if you’re socially conservative or a member of the Bush administration,” Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education told The Washington Post. “It’s because universities tend to be liberal and it’s human nature that you tend to disagree with people.”

Speaking at Haverford College on Sunday William G. Bowen, the former president of Princeton, took the student protesters to task for their “immature” and “arrogant” demands. He said Birgeneau’s withdrawal was a “defeat” for the Quaker college and its ideals. He nonetheless received a standing ovation from an audience of 2800.

Bowen’s remarks  added a new twist to commencement speaker controversies playing out increasingly on college campuses across the nation. Bowen faced no opposition, but chose to defend a fellow speaker who was targeted, calling the situation “sad” and “troubling”.

The Daily Beast published commentary that was even more blunt in its criticism of the students, with a piece headlined “The Oh-So-Fragile Class of 2014 Needs to STFU And Listen to Some New Ideas“.

Cases: Nationwide: Colleges Across the Country Disinvite Commencement Speakers