Haverford College, the prestigious and bucolic liberal arts school located in the Philadelphia suburbs, made national news in May 2014 when Robert Birgeneau, former chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, withdrew as commencement speaker following student complaints about his role in the 2011 Berkeley Occupy protests. The students’ letter, as summarized by Philly.com, urged Birgeneau “to meet nine conditions, including publicly apologizing, supporting reparations for victims, and writing a letter to Haverford students explaining his position on the events and ‘what you learned from them.’ Birgeneau declined and withdrew.”
Birgeneau’s disinvitation was one of many high-profile events during that graduation season; Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Condoleezza Rice, and Christine Lagarde were all disinvited at different commencements or withdrew in response to student demands. This troubling trend made national news, prompting FIRE to compile a comprehensive report on the issue, and earned a chapter in FIRE President and CEO Greg Lukianoff’s Freedom From Speech. An important aspect of these disinvitations is that they are often prompted by a small group of vocal students who do not necessarily represent the views of the student body. Disinvitations are pernicious blights on college reputations that shortchange open-minded students interested in learning about dissenting viewpoints.
While I am not a student at Haverford College, most of my social circle is there. This summer I am living on Haverford’s campus, which is a member of a class-sharing consortium with my school, the University of Pennsylvania. After reading Freedom From Speech, I set out to learn what the campus attitude was at the time of the disinvitation.
It was extremely difficult to find anyone who even knew the people who called for Birgeneau to withdraw. One rising senior I spoke to was a sophomore at the time of the disinvitation. Her memory of the event was that it was a relatively small group of students that wanted the speaker to step down, whereas most of the campus community members were perfectly happy to hear the chancellor’s thoughts. This student made it clear that the group who demanded Birgeneau’s disinvitation proceeded without the support of the majority of the student body or the administration, and the resulting withdrawal was a serious blow to the credibility of discourse on campus.
An article in The Clerk, Haverford’s independent student newspaper, quoted then-sophomore George Ordiway as saying, “We sort of entered the dialogue with a conclusion, and wanted to work backwards[.] … We need to approach with a slightly more open mind.” His hesitancy about the letter’s tone and intensity of its demands reveals the issues with disinvitation, insofar that it creates hostility that could limit open dialogue. Indeed, Birgeneau’s incisive response demonstrates that he had no desire to engage with demands that decried one aspect of his history rather than looking holistically at his accomplishments. One of his colleagues, Dr. Nadesan Permaul of Berkeley, wrote to the school and berated them, stating the student body “missed an opportunity to validate the very principles that Berkeley students are rightly famous for championing; ‘free speech.’” The disinvitation at Haverford is microcosmic for the disintegration of the intellectually challenging exchange of ideas on campuses.
One theory explaining the problems of disinvitation may be found in John Stuart Mill’s seminal work On Liberty. In it, he points out the absurdity of those who refuse to acknowledge other positions or arguments:
Strange that [those who do not recognize the other side of arguments] should imagine that they are not assuming infallibility when they acknowledge that there should be free discussion on all subjects which can possibly be doubtful, but think that some particular principle or doctrine should be forbidden to be questioned because it is so certain, that is, because they are certain that it is certain.
And many students intuitively understand the need to face their dissenters. My friend at Haverford believes that it was important for Birgeneau to speak at her campus because even if people disagreed with his opinion because of his actions, they would have been able to solidify their arguments by hearing him speak. Disinivitations that come from a minority of students harm the rest of the student body’s ability to exchange ideas.
The principle behind inviting a speaker is to give them the benefit of assuming they have something worthwhile to say. Disagreeing with a single facet of a speaker’s beliefs shortchanges a more nuanced conversation about issues that are necessary to form developed opinions. If you are interested in other disinvitations that have taken place in recent years, check out FIRE’s new disinvitation database so you can speak out in an informed manner when a small group attempts to push a speaker off-campus.
Evan Cernea is a FIRE summer intern.