The Commencement Disinvitation Season

05/30/2014 09:06 am 09:06:50 | Updated Jul 30, 2014

On our elite campuses, the venerable, august Commencement exercise has taken on a new significance. Until very recently, it was a photogenic occasion, a pleasant rite of passage, in which new graduates and their families were treated (or subjected) to forgettable speeches and predictable advice-giving by eminent windbags of various stripes.

Today, the Commencement season features a succession of embarrassed announcements either that the colleges and universities have rescinded their invitations to certain speakers, or that the invited speakers themselves have decided not to appear for the occasion (for a full report on this trend over the past 15 years from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, go here). In the former case, the institution alludes (with admirable delicacy) to the controversy that has arisen over the speaker's past pronouncements or affiliations. In the latter case, the quondam speakers explain (with conspicuous graciousness) that they are declining the honor because they do not wish to divert the audience's attention from what should be the occasion's focus: the celebration of the graduating students' stellar achievements in having survived the rigors of their undergraduate years. Both the institutions and the speakers evince great respect for the wishes of the students.

These now-ritualistic volte-faces would be comical in their faux politeness were it not for the sheer hypocrisy, inconsistency, and illogic that they only thinly conceal. The institutions justify their reversals on the ground that the students should ultimately decide who will speak to them. This approach to speaker selection is plausible but hardly convincing. After all, the institution decides which courses students are required to take, which books and articles they must read in those courses, and many other features of students' academic experience on campus. Many of the finest institutions (Yale and Princeton, for example) do not have commencement speakers at all.

The institutions that do recruit commencement speakers but then either disinvite them -- or in effect allow a rump of students to do so -- claim to be honoring the feelings of their students. But note that this deference to the delicate sensibilities of the students applies only to the views of some of their students - and likely a small minority of them at that. The silent majority, whose wishes the institution presumably had in mind when it invited the speaker, is suddenly rendered irrelevant. What has prevailed is not the will of the majority or of the thoughtful; what carries the day is the will of the noisiest, most aggressively partisans. And make no mistake; this prevailing minority is partisan. If there is an instance of conservative students at an elite institution preventing a liberal speaker from delivering a commencement address, I am not aware of it.

Most dismaying about these disinvitations, however, is what they reveal about the values that these institutions instantiate in some of their actual practices -- as distinguished from the values that they proclaim in their encomia to themselves, and their pitches to their donors and the public. The issue is certainly not freedom of speech; the institutions are entitled to decide for themselves who will speak to them, and no one has a right to speak at commencement.

Instead, the central issue is how some of our leading institutions of higher education conceive of their pedagogical responsibilities. The epithet of political correctness fails to capture the extent of their abdication in these cases; in truth, they have abandoned some of the most elementary aspects of the precious academic mission that we have entrusted to them. Here are just three ways in which they have dishonored this mission.

First, an invitation to deliver a commencement address supposedly exemplifies the institution's wish to honor the distinction and achievement that the speaker has gained in the larger world that their new graduates will soon enter, achievements to which they might aspire. An invitation should not signal the institution's, much less some students,' agreement with the speaker's point of view on particular issues. Consider several of the most recent spate of disinvitations. Aayan Hirsi Ali, rejected by Brandeis, could tell students a remarkable life story of courage and triumph over immense obstacles, only some of them religious. She should be a beacon to students who claim to cherish women's rights enough to question some of Islam's misogynistic practices. But taking controversial positions, as Hirsi Ali and Condoleeza Rice (rejected by Rutgers) have, is not necessary for institutions to capitulate to some students' ire. Smith College rejected Christine Lagarde, one of the most accomplished women in the world not because of anything she said or did but because of policies that some parts of her large organization have adopted in the developing world. The meticulousness of some students' moral posturing is what these institutions seem to honor most.

Second, some of the institutions invoke as justification the discomfort that their students will feel at having to listen to speakers with whom they strongly disagree. But on complex issues - and all of those with which the speakers are involved are very complex - discomfort is not a vice but rather the beginning of wisdom. It is precisely the easy certitudes and unearned self-assurance about such issues that educators should always strive to unsettle and dispel.

Third, the institutions' actions only serve to reinforce their students' existing tendencies to fly to familiar, conventional moralisms rather than forcing them to struggle with the stubborn, often elusive facts and competing values and moralities that tough problems always entail. (I sometimes tell my students that these easy moralisms are the classroom equivalent of premature ejaculation; they are quick and feel good but are otherwise not fruitful). This struggle -- presided over by conscientious, knowledgeable teachers willing to play the skeptic, agnostic, and Devil's advocate at the risk of unpopularity -- that constitutes a true education. Only such a struggle can enable students to unpack moral ideals such as fairness, racial justice, equality, the proper roles of markets and government, and so forth - and to think rigorously about them before arriving at a normative position.

The only encouraging feature of these disinvitations is the virtual unanimity with which pundits across the ideological spectrum -- not just the conservative traditionalists --have condemned them, chastising and mocking the institutions, the militant protesters, or both. The good news is that the academic values of truth-seeking and impartiality are indeed alive and well. The bad news is that it is up to those outside the academy to demand the protection of these values.