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Who's to Blame For All the Commencement Debacles?

05/14/2014 06:10 pm ET | Updated Jul 14, 2014
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As commencement seasons go, 2014 has hosted an unusually high number of protests against accomplished individuals and government leaders invited to speak. Who's really at fault here? The answer is there isn't one group that deserves all the blame. In recent days and weeks, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, International Monetary Fund head Christine Lagarde, former University of California-Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau have all canceled scheduled commencement addresses. There are, I believe, several places to assign blame.

The Activist Students And Faculty

The protests against commencement speakers have largely been driven by left-wing students and faculty members. "Rice helped launch a war on false pretexts and helped authorize torture," wrote public policy professor Meredeth Turshen in an email to students at Rutgers University. "Should she be giving our Commencement address?" Yes, what Turshen said is true, but Rice was also a provost and professor at one of the most prestigious universities in the world -- Stanford -- and the first black, female Secretary of State. What did she do after the Bush administration? She went back to Stanford, and no one staged sit-ins demanding her removal when the anger about the Bush years was still fresh.

At Smith College, an institution of higher education for women, they were set to hear from Christine Lagarde, before she canceled. Lagarde is the first female leader of the International Monetary Fund, the first woman to be finance minister of a G8 economy, named the 8th most powerful woman in the world by Forbes magazine, and a respected Minister of Finance in Europe. Has she been controversial? Oh, yeah. But can you name any politician or powerful government leader who has not? (Let me answer for you: "No.")

The Smith students didn't protest Lagarde, they protested the IMF. Because obviously she planned to take this as a chance to convince a few hundred American college students her organization is great. Just like how Rice planned to tell the class of 2014 to look back fondly on the Bush administration. But unlike Rutgers, where students used physical demonstrations, fewer than 500 signatures on an online petition was enough to shoo Lagarde from speaking to an audience of freshly-minted college graduates. (I'd guess Lagarde isn't too bummed, since she's got plenty going on, what with trying to respond to a Russian invasion of Ukraine and all.)

Michelle Goldberg, a journalist with progressive magazine The Nation, calls this protesting crowd the "anti-liberal left." As Goldberg explained to Vox, it's a "belief on certain parts of the left that liberal values like free speech and tolerance for differing opinions should be jettisoned when they get in the way of social justice."

If students are going to protest people over institutional ethics and what is morally right, why aren't they protesting against every single administrator from their college? Is it morally right that colleges push students into unpaid internships? Is it ethical for universities to rely so heavily on adjunct instructors who are paid far less than tenured faculty? Should their university invest so heavily in country club-like features and recreational gyms rather than helping students ward off a lifetime of education debt? And this isn't even getting to controversies about hazing, administrator salaries or handling of sexual violence and mental health on campus. So if students want to demand all speakers be accountable for the institutions and administrations they represent, they ought to expand that to everyone else on stage handing them a diploma.

The College Presidents

Just because students protest something, doesn't mean the administration has to listen to them. Often they don't, like when it comes to tuition hikes, divesting from fossil fuels or fixing sexual assault policies. All it would take is the administrators standing up and saying "no" to the students, like they frequently do. Instead, faced with campus sit-ins and the negative publicity that follows, the college leaders have either allowed speakers to back out or disinvited them.

Take Haverford College, for example. They invited Robert Birgeneau, the former leader of two of the most prestigious schools in the world -- the University of California-Berkeley and the University of Toronto -- as their commencement speaker. Birgeneau was also a vocal opponent of a statewide ban on same-sex marriage, proposed a cap on how much certain middle class students would pay for their education, and fought off attempts by Ivy League universities to poach Cal faculty members who would eventually win Nobel Prizes.

Activists sent a list of demands to Birgeneau, mainly focused on the handling of the 2011 Occupy Cal protests, where UC police continued their tradition of using excessive force on protesters. For the record, I was one who frequently covered this at the time. As I reported back in 2012, the American Civil Liberties Union considered Birgeneau responsible for individual officers using batons: "He set the tone, gave the directive ... This is a larger systemic problem," Linda Lye, an attorney with the ACLU of Northern California said at the time.

There's no clear reason why Birgeneau should speak at Haverford, but there was no clear reason to block him from speaking. On Tuesday, after already saying he wouldn't respond to any "demands," Birgeneau canceled. Haverford administrators said they were bummed, and had made a couple statements, but that was it.

"People say, 'These are people who withdrew,' but I assume that when the pressure gets high, the first thing a university president would do is talk to the speaker and give them an opportunity to decline," Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, told the Christian Science Monitor. "By the time you have students and faculties demanding that someone be disinvited, it's already too late."

The College Presidents (Again) And The Staff Arranging The Commencement Ceremonies

Without any student or faculty input, and apparent failures to properly vet speakers, these controversies keep erupting. In the case of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the historically Jewish Brandeis University had invited someone who was considered a women's right activist, but also called Islam "the new fascism" and equated the religion to Nazism. Looking at her Wikipedia page could've helped Brandeis avoid getting caught between honoring someone so controversial and being criticized for suppressing free speech when they disinvited her.

But why were any of these speakers invited to begin with?

Going back to Rutgers, why did they invite Rice? Was it because Rutgers truly thought students would appreciate hearing from a Bush administration official, or because they thought there'd be some positive media coverage about such an accomplished and well-known person coming to the little ol' Rutgers to speak? The whole point of inviting celebrities and notables to speak to graduates is for media coverage, which is why my inbox fills up with pitches from higher education PR flaks in May.

Ed Helms was invited to speak at Cornell University this year, mimicking a plot line for his character on "The Office." Yes, it'll get media coverage, but at least that decision was made by the students' Senior Convocation Committee, not a few administrators sitting in an office. If colleges cared about how these commencement ceremonies went over with students, and whether they were a magical moment for graduates, they would ask their tuition paying customers who they'd like to hear from. If colleges gave a damn, every commencement speaker would be chosen through some sort of democratic process.

The Corporatization Of Higher Ed

Which leads me to my last point: commencement ceremonies, like the rest of higher education, are becoming more corporatized. Commencement is a great time to impress families, show off the pretty campus and woo alumni into cutting some checks. "Wow! How'd they get that [insert movie star, singer, former or current politician or other celebrity] to speak here?" is what administrators want to hear. The running joke, used over and over in commencement speeches, is that no one remembers what commencement speakers say.

Commencement ceremonies should be for the graduates -- it's their special day. Instead, it's one the colleges manipulate for positive media coverage, to solicit donations, and sell overpriced memorabilia one last time before students leave campus. When something gets in the way of that, it must be stopped.

Personally, I think the money covering a speaker's fee would be better spent on a light show, like what the University of Arizona did. I'd remember that more than cliched lines about how I should stay humble, do what's right and that the world is my oyster. Oysters are overrated anyway.