Only Boring Graduating Speakers Allowed

May 13, 2014

At Chicago Sun-Times

How polarized is this country?

So polarized that protests erupted when Michelle Obama — a socialist radical only to those with fevered minds — was scheduled to give the commencement address this spring at a high school in Topeka, Kansas.

The first lady will speak instead at an event the day before.

And so polarized that protests erupted when Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund — a willful oppressor of underdeveloped countries only in the minds of some on the far left — was scheduled to give the commencement address at Smith College in Massachusetts.

Lagarde withdrew over the weekend.

So much for campus free speech. So much for that cherished open debate.

When picking commencement speaker nowadays, especially at the college level, a school had better pick somebody terribly safe — a benign comedian, perhaps, or a boring alumnus who made good — rather than risk ruffling anyone’s feathers.

According to a free-speech advocacy group, Individual Rights in Education — as reported in the Wall Street Journal — there is a growing trend toward dumping objectionable commencement speakers, and not only among colleges and universities with religious affiliations. This is not just a matter of, say, Notre Dame, a Catholic university, disinviting a speaker who is strongly pro-choice on abortion.

Since 2009, according to the free-speech group, there have been 95 protests against a scheduled speaker, resulting in 39 cancellations.

It is one thing to withdraw an honorary degree after having second thoughts, as Brandeis did last month to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a strong critic of Islam. An honorary degree is a seal of approval of the honoree’s views. It is quite another thing for a college to winnow its list of acceptable commencement speakers to a politically correct few, either left or right.

At Smith College, Lagarde apparently stood for things that some students simply could not abide. But what, then, about liberal cable TV host Rachel Maddow, who gave the commencement address at Smith in 2010? Are we to believe that Maddow’s views were shared by all? Or how about liberal feminist Gloria Steinem in 2007? Or liberal journalist Arianna Huffington in 2013?

In our view, actually, all of these women were good choices to be commencement speakers.

As was, for that matter, Michelle Obama in Topeka.

If only we would all — students and adults alike — grow up a little.

Cases: Nationwide: Colleges Across the Country Disinvite Commencement Speakers