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FIRE’s Depressing Commencement Speaker Prediction May Be Coming True: University of South Carolina Announces New President-Only Policy

Two years ago, FIRE President and CEO Greg Lukianoff made an unsettling prediction about how colleges might react to the increasing number of protests over controversial campus speakers: by enacting policies forbidding those speakers altogether. In the process, students’ opportunity for intellectual growth by engaging with a diversity of viewpoints would be severely limited. It was a bleak future Greg envisioned—but one that may be, depressingly, beginning to materialize. Last week the University of South Carolina (USC) announced that students will only hear “One Voice” at future graduations: that of the university president.

First, some background:

Every spring, we at FIRE prepare for what we like to call “disinvitation season”—the time of year (typically around commencement) when students and faculty demand their school rescind a guest speaker’s invitation due to objections about something the speaker did, said, or believes. FIRE’s Disinvitation Database keeps a running record of these disinvitation efforts at public and private American universities dating back to the year 2000. This year, at least ten colleges disinvited commencement speakers. That’s twice as many as in 2015.

But don’t expect to hear about any commencement speaker disinvitation attempts coming from the University of South Carolina: Starting in May 2017, only the USC president—currently Harris Pastides—will deliver the school’s commencement address.

From a legal standpoint, USC is well within its rights to do adopt such a policy. Princeton University and Cornell University, for example, have long had similar policies. However, it would be unfortunate if USC’s recent actions were, as Greg foretold, prompted by fresh fears of campus unrest over commencement speakers.

USC denies that concerns about “politics and political correctness” prompted the decision to implement the no-guest-speaker policy. But it certainly allows USC to nip any potential conflicts in the bud. In fact, USC has opted to silence potential debate before it even begins.

Greg predicted as much: That disinvitation attempts—and the headaches they generate for administrators (bad press, etc.)—might lead universities to make policies like USC’s the campus norm:

[U]niversities might grow increasingly leery of inviting speakers who might offend the most vocal part of their student body or their faculty. They could avoid this with structural changes, perhaps by putting speakers to a vote, or by only having the class valedictorian or school president speak (I should note that even the sitting university president isn’t always an uncontroversial choice). However, if the reason for this change is that campuses have become places where “strangers” are unwelcome or where even a single point of disagreement is enough to disqualify a speaker from campus, then we’re clearly failing to teach our students the values of intellectual openness, curiosity, and critical engagement that universities were always intended to foster.

A much more productive way for all universities to help prevent disinvitation attempts would be to better educate students on how to engage in constructive protest and disagreement. Only by ensuring that campus communities are exposed to a wide variety of beliefs and opinions can universities truly call themselves a “marketplace of ideas.”

FIRE hopes USC—and other schools who maintain restrictive guest-speaker policies—will consider the negative impact these rules have on the educational community, and change them for the better.

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