It’s Commencement Season – Toss out the Speaker

May 18, 2014

By Karen Heller at

Commencement is where free speech goes to die. Graduation has become an occasion of opposition leading to a speaker’s withdrawal or being disinvited. You’re invited, we’re honored, now go. It’s pomp and circumvent.

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice canceled plans to address graduates at Rutgers’ commencement Sunday after faculty challenged the invitation. The student government vigorously debated the matter – great, that’s the aim of education – and decided to welcome her, but the damage was done.

Haverford College lost a commencement speaker for its Sunday graduation: Robert Birgeneau, former chancellor of Berkeley, the summa cum liberal of universities.

Birgeneau is a champion of diversity and social justice for our 11 million undocumented American immigrants. But a few Haverford students and professors opposed the invitation because of Berkeley campus police’s use of force during 2011 protests against rising college costs. Critics demanded Birgeneau meet nine conditions before accepting an honorary degree, including writing, akin to third-grade discipline, a letter to Haverford students explaining “what [he] learned from” the events. Birgeneau, you will be shocked to learn, declined.

When schools engage in such puerile behavior, politically correct but extraordinarily rude, they look pompous and small, keeping the “real world” at bay while coddling students and faculty into believing they are always special and entitled to get their way. They’re in for a shock once they leave the manicured perfection of that campus green.

Many schools adopt a literal interpretation of “liberal arts” and cling to a progressive agenda, with conservative faculty so rare as to qualify as diversity hires. Perhaps if a greater range of disparate voices were heard during students’ four years (or more) instead of the numbing chatter of agreement, there wouldn’t be such strident opposition at graduation.

But the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a Philadelphia free-speech advocacy group, found radical opposition to divergent opinion occurs throughout the academic calendar – almost 190 incidents since 1990. Last year, the number of canceled commencement speakers escalated to 17, leading Greg Lukianoff, president of the foundation, to label graduation “the season of disinvitation.”

This spring, Smith shed Christine Lagarde, International Monetary Fund president and one of the world’s most powerful women, because her organization fosters “imperialist and patriarchal systems.” Brandeis disinvited Somali-born feminist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a woman who has displayed notably more courage than the university, for criticizing Islam.

After students and faculty challenge speakers who may have done something political, controversial, or upsetting during long, accomplished careers, who’s left? Comics, writers, and inspirational role models (though not Rice, Lagarde, or Hirsi Ali). But Stephen Colbert, J.K. Rowling, and Oprah Winfrey cannot speak everywhere.

Do you remember your commencement address? Me neither. When I asked friends for memorable graduation speeches (the best now YouTube-worthy), only a few sprung to mind: Steve Jobs at Stanford, Conan O’Brien at Dartmouth, Winfrey at Harvard, David Foster Wallace at Kenyon.

We live in a TED talk world, where speeches are not only a dime a dozen but virtual and free. Talks range from inspirational to ripe-for-parody nonsense. Note that the E in TED stands for Entertainment, not Education.

That doesn’t mean talk is cheap. Rice would have been paid $35,000, plus the requisite lagniappe of an honorary doctorate. Now we know what an honorary doctorate is worth, and Rice already owns 10.

In this vexing marketplace with many graduates burdened by crushing loans, commencements are wellsprings of anxiety as to whether the real world offers more than WOOFing and waiting tables. Perhaps that’s the excuse administrations employ when they disinvite speakers with unsettling views. Keep calm and pay your loans. This is the students’ moment, their academic birthday. Tell them what they already know, agree on, approve of, or simply bore them with hokum.

There’s an ulterior motivation to keep graduates content at all costs, one crucial to schools’ future success and U.S. News ranking. Commencements are marketing with mortarboards, the cultivation of lifelong donors that can extend beyond the grave. Toward that end, Princeton – among the nation’s great fund-raising engines – hosts a graduation extravaganza that lasts days, including a prom for graduates and their families and friends.

So pass the pablum. Make memories, but also donations. A formal education may be a fixed construct, but giving never ends.