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FIRE’s Prediction Proves True: This Year, Colleges ‘Play It Safe’ with Commencement Speakers

As anyone who won their office March Madness pool will tell you, successfully predicting future events can be fun sometimes. Other times, less so—like when your favorite free speech watchdog organization correctly forecasts a disappointing development for campus discourse.

Unfortunately, we’re stuck with the latter today.

Over at Inside Higher Ed, reporter Jake New assesses this year’s commencement speakers at Rutgers University, Haverford College, and Smith College. After high-profile “disinvitations” marred each of these institutions’ graduation ceremonies last year, New suggests that this spring, they aren’t taking any chances with their choice of speakers:

When Rutgers University invited Condoleezza Rice, former U.S. secretary of state, to speak at its commencement ceremony last year, a group of students protested the choice by staging a sit-in on campus. Rutgers's faculty council passed a resolution urging the university to rescind its invitation to Rice, calling her a "war criminal." The university stood by its decision, but Rice withdrew from the ceremony.

This year’s commencement speaker is not likely to spur such a debate. In fact, the pick may have been partly the result of a student-led social media campaign making use of the hashtag #BowTie4BillNye. And indeed, Bill Nye, the bow tie-wearing science guy many of the graduates grew up watching on television, will speak at the ceremony.

Last year, Rutgers was one of a number of colleges that saw commencement speakers back out following student and faculty protests. Although the speakers withdrew and the institutions didn't rescind their invites, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education took to referring to that spring as “disinvitation season." This year, those same colleges seem to be playing it safe.

I discussed the negative impact of disinvitation season with New:

Creeley said the cost is that students are stuck with only safe, inoffensive speakers. This year’s choices are not uninteresting or unworthy, he said, but if the trend continues he worries that this will one day be the case.

“If we allow students to serve as vetoes, only the blandest speakers will be left,” Creeley said. “If we treat ideas we don’t agree with as barred from campus, then really what’s left are only the most inoffensive, and by extension most uninteresting, folks. Perhaps campuses in the limelight last year have gotten the message, and it’s a shame because students on campus have been denied the ability to learn something from someone they disagree with, or celebrate someone they do agree with.”

What makes this year’s turn away from “controversial” speakers most frustrating is that FIRE saw it coming from a mile away. FIRE President Greg Lukianoff predicted and warned against exactly this result repeatedly last spring, including on NBC’s Today Show and in TIME.

As Greg wrote for The Huffington Post last May:

If I had to guess, I suspect the negative attention focused on students and faculty members behind successful disinvitation efforts may slow the enthusiasm for disinvitation this year. Only time will tell. However, I see only two ways in which disinvitation pushes will truly stop.

The first would be if students were to be better educated in how to engage in constructive protest and disagreement. Rather than a minority of students and faculty deciding that speakers whom they don't like should be disinvited, they might decide to picket, boycott, or find other ways to express their disdain. Better yet, maybe some of the skeptical ones will show up with open minds and say, "Okay, I'm going to hear this person out before I decide he or she couldn't ever have anything valuable to say." The academy can and should be teaching these habits, but I'm afraid that in an age when 59% of universities maintain speech codes, they are not quite up to the task.

The second way in which disinvitation season could end would be that universities 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.

Time will tell—but unfortunately, it looks like Greg called it.

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