Pharos-Tribune

Community News Network

May 14, 2014

Everything is political these days, even commencement speeches

WASHINGTON — It's the end of the school year, which means caps and gowns, graduation parties and, lately, commencement speakers who withdraw at the last minute amid controversy.

International Monetary Fund managing director Christine Lagarde became the latest graduation speaker to back out after student protests, telling Smith College Monday that she will not be speaking at its May 18 ceremony.

As more speakers back out of what is traditionally seen as a speech less about politics and more about dispensing pearls of wisdom to newly minted graduates, two factors are at play: politics (don't act surprised) and a shift from academia embracing the free exchange of ideas to shunning those with divergent opinions.

"There's no two ways about it, and it's something that I consider myself politically liberal but it's just a fact: you are more likely to withdraw your name or be successfully disinvited if you're socially conservative or a member of the Bush administration," said Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. "It's because universities tend to be liberal and it's human nature that you tend to disagree with people."

Lukianoff's organization, known as FIRE, has done preliminary research into how many speakers have withdrawn their names, had invitations revoked or been the subject of protests for commencement speeches during the school year. There have been at least 145 instances since 1987, with almost 100 of those coming in the last five years.

Butler University deemed Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts "too controversial" to speak in 2010. Conservative commenter Ann Coulter was uninvited from a speech at Fordham University in 2012. Students have complained or protested about former Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo, Dick Cheney and Mitt Romney speaking on campus. Hillary Clinton's invitation to speak at the College of St. Catherine in 2008 was rescinded and Kathleen Sebelius was the subject of student protests when she spoke at Georgetown University's graduation in 2012. First Lady Michelle Obama's planned speech at a Kansas high school sparked criticism by people who worried that there would be limited space and political undertones.

(Also the subject of student protests: actor James Franco, Sean "Diddy" Combs and Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi. But we digress).

"I have been surprised at the number of recent bailouts by speakers themselves instead of standing their ground," said Cary Nelson, a professor of English at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and former president of the American Association of University Professors. "When a speaker backs out, it does somewhat compromise academic freedom."

This year, it seems as though the number of withdrawals and protests about commencement speakers has reached a crescendo.

Earlier this month former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice withdrew her decision to speak at Rutgers University commencement after students and faculty objected to her role in the Iraq war. Some students at Harvard University are opposed to former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg speaking at graduation, and students and faculty at Rowan University have created a petition protesting that the school is awarding its commencement speaker, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, with an honorary degree. Robert J. Birgeneau, the former chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, declined an invitation to speak at Haverford College's commencement after students objected to a use of force by police during 2011 Occupy movement protests on campus.

Last year, former Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick didn't speak at the graduation of his alma mater, Swarthmore College, after students said his involvement in the Bush administration and strong support for the Iraq war conflicted with its Quaker roots. Dr. Ben Carson withdrew from addressing graduates of Johns Hopkins University after students voiced unhappiness about his comments on same-sex marriage.

"We used to joke about this as disinvitation season," Lukianoff said. "It was an inside joke at FIRE and then it stopped being funny because it just kept getting more intense. To me this is the natural result of speech codes and an environment on campuses that tells students they have a right not to be offended and that turns out to the right to be confirmed when you don't want someone you don't agree with on campus."

An extreme example, Lukianoff said, is when Long Island University had Kermit the Frog address graduates at its Southampton College graduate campus  in 1996. "I'm a big fan of Kermie," he said, "But I'm afraid that's we're headed."

Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, said it's up to the board of trustees of a university to ensure that there is room for unpopular speech on campus and to make it clear that differing perspectives will be accommodated.

"Our campuses have become islands of intolerance where a small group of close-minded students and faculty can cut off discussion. It's not so much a right/left political problem as it is a political correctness problem," Neal said. "And it's a failure of leadership.  The academy, in too many places,  has become one-sided, coercive and hostile to a multiplicity of perspectives."

Nelson thinks in some ways it's "kind of inevitable" that there will be protests against conservatives at traditionally progressive campuses. But barring those people from speaking, he said, violates free speech and the sharing of ideas that he said is central to any institution of higher learning.

Nelson, who protested in college and continues to do so in certain instances today, said that commencement speeches have a history of being volatile. Last year Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a women's rights and atheist activist who has made scathing remarks about Islam, had an invitation to receive an honorary degree at the commencement of Brandeis University revoked after students and faculty protested. Nelson said he believes the president of the university "did not observe his finest hour" by backing down.

With increasing frequency, Nelson said, colleges and universities feel they need to reach a higher degree of consensus on a graduation speaker.

"Rather than use this rule of thumb that every single position deserves a voice on campus, people tend to want to feel this is someone I endorse, and if you want a campus to feel unity and endorsement around a speaker you have to go through a much more elaborate process," he said.

Nelson should know. This year he was on a faculty panel to help choose a commencement speaker at Illinois; he said the names of three businessmen were floated but rejected because some were uncomfortable with their corporate practices. Students will hear from Col. Michael S. Hopkins, an astronaut and alum, at graduation May 17.

 

1
Text Only | Photo Reprints
Community News Network
  • Wal-Mart to cut prices more aggressively in back-to-school push

    Wal-Mart Stores plans to cut prices more aggressively during this year's back-to-school season and will add inventory to its online store as the chain battles retailers for student spending.

    July 21, 2014

  • Hospitals let patients schedule ER visits

    Three times within a week, 34-year-old Michael Granillo went to the emergency room at Northridge Hospital Medical Center in Los Angeles because of intense back pain. Each time, Granillo, who didn't have insurance, stayed for less than an hour before leaving without being seen by a doctor.

    July 21, 2014

  • Starved Pennsylvania 7-year-old weighed only 25 pounds

    A 7-year-old Pennsylvania boy authorities described as being so underweight he looked like a human skeleton has been released from the hospital.

    July 21, 2014

  • Malaysians wonder 'Why us?' after second loss of airline jet

    It was all too familiar. Grieving families rushing to airport. The flashing television graphics of a plane's last radar appearance. The uncomfortable officials before a heavy thicket of microphones.
    For many Malaysians, the disappearance of Flight 370 in March has been a long trauma from which the nation has not yet recovered.

    July 18, 2014

  • A quarter of the world's most educated people live in the 100 largest cities

    College graduates are increasingly sorting themselves into high-cost, high-amenity cities such as Washington, New York, Boston and San Francisco, a phenomenon that threatens to segregate us across the country by education.

    July 18, 2014

  • Your chocolate addiction is only going to get more expensive

    For nearly two years, cocoa prices have been on the rise. Finally, that's affecting the price you pay for a bar of chocolate - and there's reason to believe it's only the beginning.

    July 18, 2014

  • Facebook tests button to let people shop from its website

    Members on desktop computers or mobile devices can click a "buy" button to make purchases through advertisements or other posts on the world's largest social network, the Menlo Park, California-based company said Thursday in a blog post.

    July 17, 2014

  • The terrible history of passenger planes getting shot out of the sky

    What is more clear is that, if initial reports are true, this would be the deadliest incident of a civilian passenger plane being shot down in modern memory. In some instances, the causes of the disaster are still shrouded in mystery. Here are some of the worst events.

    July 17, 2014

  • 130408_NT_BEA_good kids We're raising a generation of timid kids

    A week ago, a woman was charged with leaving her child in the car while she went into a store. Her 11-year-old child. This week, a woman was arrested for allowing her 9-year-old daughter to go to the park alone. Which raises just one question: America, what the heck is wrong with you?

    July 17, 2014 1 Photo

  • web_starbucks-cof_big_ce.jpg Starbucks sees more Apple-like stores after Colombia debut

    This week Starbucks opened its first location in Colombia — a 2,700-square-foot store with a heated patio, concrete columns, mirrors on the ceiling and walls of colorful plants.

    July 17, 2014 1 Photo

Hyperlocal Search
Premier Guide
Find a business

Walking Fingers
Maps, Menus, Store hours, Coupons, and more...
Premier Guide
Poll

The Pence administration continues to cut Indiana agency budgets despite a state surplus of $2 billion. Is this wise management of state funds?

Yes
No
Not sure
     View Results
Featured Ads
AP Video
Raw: Israel Bombs Multiple Targets in Gaza Veteran Creates Job During High Unemployment Raw: Cargo Craft Undocks From Space Station Widow: Jury Sent Big Tobacco a $23B Message New Orleans Plans to Recycle Cigarette Butts UN Security Council Calls for MH 17 Crash Probe Obama Bestows Medal of Honor on NH Veteran Texas Sending National Guard Troops to Border Hopkins to Pay $190M After Pelvic Exams Taped Foxx Cites Washington 'Circus Mirror' NASA Ceremony Honors Moon Walker Neil Armstrong Obama Voices Concern About Casualties in Mideast Diplomacy Intensifies Amid Mounting Gaza Toll AP Exclusive: American Beaten in Israel Speaks Obama Protects Gay, Transgender Workers Raw: Gaza Rescuers Search Rubble for Survivors Raw: International Team Inspects MH17 Bodies Raw: 25 Family Members Killed in Gaza Airstrike US Teen Beaten in Mideast Talks About Ordeal 'Weird Al' Is Wowed by Album's Success
Parade
Magazine

Click HERE to read all your Parade favorites including Hollywood Wire, Celebrity interviews and photo galleries, Food recipes and cooking tips, Games and lots more.