“Disinvitation season” continues, but at least some students are getting a lesson in what the phenomenon means for open discourse on campus.
Former Princeton University president William G. Bowen spoke at Haverford College’s commencement ceremony Sunday and criticized those whose demands ultimately led to former University of California, Berkeley chancellor Robert Birgeneau withdrawing from the event. And at Smith College, former Smith president Ruth J. Simmons replaced International Monetary Fund managing director Christine Lagarde as speaker after Lagarde backed down in the face of student protests. In her speech, Simmons emphasized the importance of hearing views with which you disagree, even those that are “deeply offensive.”
These remarks from Bowen and Simmons represent a much-needed counterpoint to the recent efforts by students and faculty to keep visiting speakers off-campus because they hold certain viewpoints or because of past controversies.
Bowen characterized the loss of Birgeneau as a speaker as a loss for the Haverford community:
In keeping with the views of many others in higher education, I regard this outcome as a defeat, pure and simple, for Haverford—no victory for anyone who believes, as I think most of us do, in both openness to many points of view and mutual respect.
Bowen further argued that while student critics of Birgeneau should have welcomed him to campus, Birgeneau, too, should have had been more open-minded in his response:
I am disappointed that those who wanted to criticize Birgeneau's handling of events at Berkeley … chose to send him such an intemperate list of "demands." In my view, they should have encouraged him to come and engage in a serious discussion, not to come, tail between his legs, to respond to an indictment that a self-chosen jury had reached without hearing counter-arguments.
I think that Birgeneau, in turn, responded intemperately, failing to make proper allowance for the immature, and, yes, arrogant inclinations of some protestors. Aggravated as he had every right to be, I think he should be with us today.
Reactions from Bowen’s audience were mixed. English department chair Maud McInerney said that it was “really unfair to shame students at their graduation. It’s a captive audience. That’s an abuse of power.” Bowen received a standing ovation, though, and political science major Bo Abrams said Bowen’s admonitions were “appropriate and justified.”
It is understandable that some would want the year (and, in the students’ cases, their time in college) to end on an unmixedly positive note. But college is meant to be a place where students hear new ideas even when those ideas make them uncomfortable, and Bowen simply seized the very last opportunity to reach Haverford’s class of 2014 with the lesson that they should have learned far earlier. (Further, far from being a “captive audience,” students can and have in the past walked out on presentations by speakers with whom they disagree.)
Meanwhile, at Smith, Simmons acknowledged the feelings of those who objected to Lagarde’s planned visit, telling a story of how she attended a presentation by a visiting speaker “whose every assertion was dangerous and deeply offensive to [her] on a personal level,” and whose views included the idea that “blacks were better off having been slaves,” as she explained.
Simmons’ decision to hear the speaker despite her feelings was motivated by two ideas we frequently discuss here on The Torch. First, as Simmons said to Smith’s graduating class, “One’s voice grows stronger in encounters with opposing views.” The simple act of hearing a different viewpoint, even if it is not persuasive to the listener, can help him learn to better understand and communicate his own point of view. Second, as Simmons noted, “[p]rotecting free speech brilliantly insulates us from from being silenced for own unpopular views.” That’s exactly right. For every point of view, there is someone who wishes to silence it. Freedom of speech, therefore, will last only as long as we defend the right of people to speak even when we vehemently disagree with them.