By Mary Beth Marklein at USA Today
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education calls it “disinvitation season” – the annual spring standoff between college commencement speakers and the graduating seniors (and others) who will be in the audience.
Former U.S. secretary of State Condoleezza Rice won’t be speaking at Rutgers University Sunday. Students and faculty objected to her role in the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde won’t be appearing at Smith College’s commencement exercises Sunday. An online petition at the women’s college had called for her ouster, saying she represents a “corrupt system” that oppresses and abuses women in developing countries.
Robert Birgeneau, former chancellor at the University of California-Berkeley, says he won’t apologize for his decision in 2011 to allow campus police to use force against participants in the Occupy movement. Nor will he speak at commencement exercises Sunday at Haverford College.
Technically, the speakers were not “disinvited;” each withdrew as protests grew louder. But the outcome is the same, says Robert Shibley, senior vice president of the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which monitors campus free-speech policies.
“It’s about this idea that students are expecting only to hear from people who share their viewpoints,” he says. “They want to drive off campus anyone they disagree with.”
The phenomenon is not new, he says, but seems to have “snowballed” in recent years, helped along by social media.
With each new example comes the question of what, exactly, is expected of a commencement speaker.
Brandeis University last month rescinded a decision to award an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a campaigner for women’s rights and a critic of Islam, saying, “We cannot overlook that certain of her past statements are inconsistent with Brandeis University’s core values.”
Smith College president Kathleen McCartney said in a campus announcement that she remains “committed to leading a college where different views can be heard and debated with respect.” Lagarde, in announcing her withdrawal at Smith, said she didn’t want to be a distraction at what should be a celebratory occasion.
Even less polarizing figures have the potential to generate debate. Cornell University’s commencement speaker this year, actor Ed Helms, “seems almost boringly safe,” graduating senior James Rainis says. “A commencement speech should not just be a pat on the back for graduating but a send-off that reminds students that no matter their education, there’s still more for them to learn and consider.”