05/28/2014 02:04 pm ET Updated Jul 28, 2014

Let The Controversy Commence!

Commencement is all the rage these days.

This spring, several high profile graduation speakers have been derailed by campus protests. In April, Brandeis University withdrew its invitation to women's rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali for her fierce criticism of Islam. In early May, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice decided not to speak at Rutgers University in the wake of criticism over her role as a central architect of the Iraq War. In recent weeks, former UC-Berkeley chancellor Robert Birgeneau turned down an honorary degree at his alma mater Haverford College after refusing to apologize for his role in police crackdowns on the campus Occupy Movement, and IMF head Christine Lagarde cancelled her appearance at Smith College following student and faculty concerns about the IMF's role in developing countries. Countless commentators have dubbed this "disinvitation season."

As a longtime scholar of and participant in social protest movements, dating back to the emergence of the AIDS crisis and global calls to end apartheid in South Africa, I've had a complex reaction to these recent developments. But not for the reasons many others have expressed.

Frankly, I'm at least as troubled by the decision of these speakers not to attend as I am the "disinvitations" themselves. I appreciate not wanting to speak to a tough audience. Doing so is hard, risky and stressful. But it's also vitally important, a way to hold yourself and your audience accountable. Engaging your critics gives you the opportunity to publicly express your values, to work through disagreements and misunderstandings, to demonstrate your willingness to debate major issues, and to defend or apologize for past actions. And let's not forget that graduation speakers, even the controversial ones, are actually in a privileged position. Showing up does not mean there's an equal playing field between speakers and critics -- or a home campus advantage for the protestors -- but not showing up makes the contest impossible. Moral leaders do not shy away from or seek to avoid contentious politics. Better to be booed than cowed.

But I'm also troubled by the "disinvitations." Universities are places where the free, honest, open -- and yes, contentious -- exchange of ideas should be valued as the top priority, and progressives should be the loudest proponents of this. History shows us that critics--outliers, whistleblowers, radicals of various kinds -- are usually the first to be silenced, so we should never be complicit in the work of silencing those with whom we disagree. The withdrawal of invitations to "controversial" commencement speakers robs us all of the opportunities I described above. But it does more than that. It allows powerful people to avoid the challenges and criticisms that might actually make them better leaders, which only reinforces the echo chambers that can lead to narrow ideas, bad policies or immoral actions. It also leaves protestors with a false and fleeting sense of victory, little real influence on power and policy, and a far greater likelihood of being caricatured and ridiculed by those who disagree with us.

I realize this may fly in the face of conventional wisdom and popular opinion. After all, commencements are supposed to be happy affairs where faculty, family and friends gather to honor the graduates. Protests disrupt the ceremony, distract the audience, and disrespect the students and invited guests. Commencements should be about celebration, not controversy. Or so it goes.

My own commencement -- from Harvard back in 1993 -- was both celebratory and controversial. General Colin Powell, then Chair of the Joint Chiefs, was invited to receive an honorary degree and deliver the graduation address. The "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, banning gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military, had just been introduced in Congress. Like newly elected President Bill Clinton, who signed the discriminatory bill into law the next year, General Powell supported the policy as a "compromise" measure and was going to address it in his speech.

The morning of our graduation, student activists handed out "Why Does Harvard Honor Hate?" buttons, "Lift the Ban" balloons, and stickers with pink triangles, the iconic image of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or ACT-UP. I was deep in the closet at the time -- my own personal "don't ask, don't tell" policy -- but I had become an outspoken activist in college, so I took the button, the balloon and the sticker. It's impossible to know how many people participated in or supported the protest that day, but Tercentenary Theater was awash in pink. Security was tight, armed guards stationed everywhere in case the activists got too close to the general. As a senior class officer with a front row seat for the ceremony, I was very close to the general. One rarely gets such an opportunity, so I decided to seize the moment. As tens of thousands of people slowly processed to their seats, General Powell and I stood facing each other -- me with my protest pins and bright pink balloon, him with his military medals and dark green uniform -- debating a policy that so many of us considered to be an affront to equal rights.

Our conversation was short, civil and tense. Before shaking his hand and taking my seat, I asked: "How can someone who was banned from West Point because of race and racism support a ban on military service because of sexuality and homophobia?" General Powell smiled, but he didn't seem to have an answer. By the end of the day, those of us who protested had made our point -- loudly and visibly. And the general, in his speech, had made his:

We don't always meet the high standards we set for ourselves. We will continue to encounter challenges to our traditions and policies, and we will take them on and solve them. We took on racism. We took on drugs. We took on Tailhook. And we found answers that make us stronger and even more relevant to the society around us. We will do the same with the controversial issue of homosexuals in the military.

History has a peculiar way of providing perspective. A generation removed from Harvard's commencement in 1993, several things are now clear to me. First, the very civil disobedience that day disrupted but did not derail the ceremony. Second, General Powell heard our protest and we heard his policy, neither of which would have happened if we had disinvited him or he had decided not to speak to us. Third, it turns out we were right about "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," just as the protestors of General Powell's generation had been right about the Jim Crow racism that made his life more difficult and his achievements more admirable. If you have any doubts about this, just ask General Powell, who eventually recanted his position on the anti-gay military ban in 2009, a year before President Obama signed its repeal into law.

Finally, on a more personal note, though my parents and many others were initially distracted by the protest, ultimately, it did nothing to diminish their immense pride in the achievement they were there to celebrate that day, a pride that now extends to their gay son's continued activism in the face of racism, homophobia, war and other forms of injustice. In fact, my college graduation remains one of the most memorable days of my parents' lives--pink protest and all.

So let the protestors protest and the speakers speak. And let the controversy commence!

Timothy Patrick McCarthy teaches American history and literature, public policy and communications at Harvard University. He is editor or author of five books, including The Radical Reader: A Documentary History of the American Radical Tradition (2003) and Stonewall's Children: Living Queer History in an Age of Liberation, Loss, and Love, forthcoming from The New Press. In 2010, he provided expert testimony to the Pentagon Comprehensive Working Group on the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."