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Colleges Should Stand Up, Not Down

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Colleges across America have been in the news recently, for rather unsettling reasons.

Commencement speakers from Rutgers and Brandeis to Haverford and the University of California, Berkeley -- and one proposed recipient of an honorary degree -- have either backed out or been disinvited based on past statements or controversial positions they've taken. This emerging trend curbs, rather than expands, the free flow of ideas and speech, pillars upon which this country and our colleges and universities are built.

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice cancelled her commencement speech at Rutgers University following student protests about her role in the Iraq war during the Bush Administration. Christine Lagarde, managing director of the head of the International Monetary Fund, backed out as commencement speaker at the University of California, Berkeley, after faculty and students protested her invitation, calling the IMF "corrupt" and accusing it of oppressing women.

It hasn't stopped there. Robert Birgeneau, the former Chancellor of UC Berkeley and an established advocate for undocumented students, backed out of an appearance at Haverford College near Philadelphia after students protested the way university police handled demonstrators during the Occupy movement. Finally, Brandeis University, its motto "Truth, Even Unto Its Innermost Parts," withdrew its invitation to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Muslim women's advocate who is critical of Islam.

For purposes of this conversation, let's put aside the fact that there are differences between inviting someone to deliver a commencement address and bestowing an honorary degree. Considering the careful process that goes into selecting speakers and honorees, for colleges to succumb to such pressure contravenes the notion that institutions of higher learning should be bastions of autonomous discourse and the free exchange of ideas.

At Touro College and at most other colleges and universities across the country, individual schools submit names of potential honorees to central committees, which then decide whether to extend the invitations.

The process is not always easy, but it should involve criteria that ensures the invited guests are individuals who respect -- though not necessarily agree with -- all aspects of the political process, and who embrace generally accepted legal and moral principles. No matter one's political leanings, most would agree that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or Speaker of the House John Boehner would be acceptable, while Syrian President Bashar as-Assad or a member of Boko Haram, the Nigerian group that has kidnapped hundreds of girls and women, would not.

Granted, that leaves a sizable middle ground. It's never black and white and each institution must determine for itself the path closest aligned with its mission. However, once the criteria are met and a decision is reached at the highest levels of the organization, the college should extend its invitation and stand by it, barring a revelation of some previously unknown egregious information or abhorrent behavior.

Of course students and faculty have the right to object and to make their voices heard, both after invitations are sent and -- in an orderly fashion at graduation. But rather than cave in to the pressure, college administrators should stand by their selections and dissuade honorees from withdrawing in short-sighted attempts to temper the controversies.

Our country was founded upon dissent and freedom of speech. During his campaign for President in 1800, Thomas Jefferson endured savage verbal attacks from his political opponents. According to the Miller Center at the University of Virginia, one newspaper wrote that a Jefferson victory would mean "Murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes." Despite a level of discourse that would be unthinkable today, Jefferson stood his ground and both he, and the republic, survived.

Institutions of higher learning must teach by example that to adhere to our lofty ideals, we must learn to listen, even if we do not agree.