Student Protests Drive Away Notable Commencement Speakers

May 18, 2014

By Olivia Vanni at U.S. News & World Report

With commencement ceremonies quickly approaching for colleges across the country, now is the time for seniors to celebrate their accomplishments and receive the bachelor’s degrees that they worked so hard to earn. But for certain schools, now is also time for controversy surrounding their choice of commencement speaker.  Some student protests against their colleges’ selection has been vitriolic enough to make notable figures step down as commencement speakers.

The Associated Press explains that there have been several accomplished individuals who have opted to walk away from these oratory opportunities, including the International Monetary Fund Director Christine Lagarde and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

According to the AP, Rice pulled out of her agreement with Rutgers University because students were protesting the part she played in the Iraq War. At the same time, a number of students and alumni at Smith College opposed the school having selected Lagarde as commencement speaker, maintaining that IMF is corrupt in its business practices and extorts the resources of developing nations.

Colleges Stand by Their Choices

While people who participated in these campaigns may be doing a victory dance, many administrators and academics believe students are missing the value these speakers provide. For instance, The Washington Post reported that Lagarde is an exceptional woman who has risen to the top of the business world, becoming the director of IMF, the first female chairman of Baker & McKenzie and the first female finance minister of a G8 nation.

Given these credentials, it is clear why Smith President Kathleen McCarthy and the college’s board of trustees chose Lagarde as their speaker – a selection by which McCarthy still stands.

“I want to underscore this fact: An invitation to speak at a commencement is not an endorsement of all views or policies of an individual or the institution she or he leads,” wrote McCarthy on Smith’s site. “Such a test would preclude virtually anyone in public office or position of influence. Moreover, such a test would seem anathema to our core values of free thought and diversity of opinion. I remain committed to leading a college where differing views can be heard and debated with respect.”

Protests may Cyclically Impede Speaker Selections 

While there is no denying that students have the right to voice their opinions, many educators believe that if schools and speakers always surrender at a hint of protest, colleges may find it impossible to bring diverse and interesting opinions to commencement addresses.

“The students absolutely have the right to protest decisions, but given how often this happens, you start to worry that this is going to make it very difficult to ever invite anyone who’s even the slightest bit controversial to speak on a college campus,” explained Robert Shibley, senior vice president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

Cases: Nationwide: Colleges Across the Country Disinvite Commencement Speakers