The Campus Commencement Controversy

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  1. Avatar Michael Cain says:

    I had part of this argument with an acquaintance who thought it telling that Obama and Biden were speaking at multiple universities, but Bush and Cheney were not. I pointed out that Obama and Biden can’t take payments while they are in office; their transportation, security, and lodging are picked up by the federal government; and that a commencement speech is just another bully pulpit. Bush seldom speaks and it appears his minimum $100K appearance fee is non-negotiable. Cheney’s price tag is $75K plus a batch of perks (first-class air travel for four, top-tier hotel accommodations, etc). At least one article said that Rice’s fee to appear at Princeton was $30K. I can see Clinton and Gore waiving their fees for a high-visibility commencement address: both of them have private policy axes to grind. Bush and Cheney, not so much.Report

    • Avatar Saul DeGraw in reply to Michael Cain says:

      The speaker’s fee is certainly part of the problem and so is the bully pulpit because a lot of people on the left have argued that commencement speakers provide a captive audience even though I imagine that the speakers would not speak about politics directly.Report

      • Avatar Barry in reply to Saul DeGraw says:

        In theory, being the speaker and getting an honorary degree is a, ah, – oh, yes, ‘honor’.

        BTW: ‘Robert Birgenau handled student protests at the UCs with a very heavy hand including the notorious and immoral pepper-spraying of students at UC-Davis. ‘

        If I did what that officer did, even to people sitting illegally on my front lawn, I wouldn’t be writing this, unless prisons had internet access.

        As for Rice, in a more just world, she’d keep her mouth shut in public. She quite deliberately lied us into a fraudulent war of choice, for partisan political gain, causing a massive amount of death and destruction, $3 trillion in costs, and likely a future amount to be determined of general trouble in the future. Yes, students could and should object to somebody like that being honored by their university.Report

  2. Avatar Saul DeGraw says:

    I also wonder if this is a controversy that shows how deeply weird political junkies are. How many people are really following this story even though it has received a lot of coverage in the media from Vox to Slate to the Huffington Post and now the online section of the Times?Report

  3. Avatar Mike Schilling says:

    If I attended Haverford, the only commencement speaker I’d accept is Aziz Ansari.Report

  4. Avatar greginak says:

    One aspect of all these protests happening at elite schools is that it is only students who feel elite and with significant power will feel strong enough to protest a speaker. At most schools students might not like a speaker but won’t either feel comfortable taking the risk of protesting or feel like their voice matters. It is also elite students who have been rewarded for years for speaking out about causes they are passionate about.

    This more seems like a tempest in a teapot, not really an important thing but something for the news and pundits to get worked up over as if it means something.Report

    • Avatar Saul DeGraw in reply to greginak says:

      That is a really good point. These are people who have been told since they were very young that they were intelligent, unique, go-getters, going to be world changers, encouraged, etc. Often by the same people who are now criticizing them and those pundits were also once the young college students they are now criticizing. Michelle Goldberg noted this phenonmenon in herself:

      “Perhaps every political generation is fated to be appalled by the one that succeeds it. In the 1960s, longtime socialist intellectuals were horrified by the anarchic energies of the new left. Then some of those new leftists reached middle age and watched, aghast, as new speech codes proliferated on college campuses during the first iteration of political correctness. I was in college then and am now in my thirties, which means it’s my turn to be dismayed by a growing left-wing tendency towards censoriousness and hair-trigger offense….”

      Though she is more sympathetic to the commencement protestors. So I see the pundits as reacting horribly to what they have bred and encouraged themselves and was once encouraged in them…Report

      • Avatar greginak in reply to Saul DeGraw says:

        People should also not be very surprised when teenagers/young 20’s are strident, tend towards the black and white and loud. It’s part of that age.Report

      • Avatar Saul DeGraw in reply to Saul DeGraw says:

        I agree but at the same time college administrators and professors are also responsible for teaching nuance, etc.

        I think a large part of the problem is the kid/adult divide that many college students find themselves in. A few years ago I read a Roger Ebert essay where he talked about his time as a college student during the early 1960s (pre-Beatles on Ed Sullivan). He said that cops would go to local motels, take down information from driver’s licenses, and then report back to the admin about which students checked in to the hotel for sex. This was apparently seen as a perfectly acceptable thing for cops and university admins to crack down on.

        I doubt many people want to or think we can return to that age but now college students are in a weird spot. They are largely seen as adults and are given a lot of freedom and then get to suffer the consequences but they are still in environments where they can be disciplined for things adults cannot be disciplined for. This psuedo-adulthood must have psychological manifestations.Report

      • Avatar Saul DeGraw in reply to Saul DeGraw says:


        The stidency also caused problems with the new trigger warning debates.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Saul DeGraw says:

        oh, yes, they can absolutely be disciplined. rofl.
        yeah, in this world where rapists get off scot free at college,
        with the knowing aid and abettment of college police officers.Report

      • Avatar Barry in reply to Saul DeGraw says:

        Saul: “That is a really good point. These are people who have been told since they were very young that they were intelligent, unique, go-getters, going to be world changers, encouraged, etc. Often by the same people who are now criticizing them and those pundits were also once the young college students they are now criticizing. Michelle Goldberg noted this phenonmenon in herself:”

        Or they are people who feel that they won’t be punished for it; Joe/Josephine Random Grad at Directional State U doesn’t have any margin for stepping out of line.

        And, of course, Directional State U doesn’t get the big speakers.Report

    • Avatar Mo in reply to greginak says:

      I would not that these are very good schools, but not the most elite. Bloomberg isn’t being protested by Harvard, despite recently advocating and defending some pretty vile civil liberties violations (stop and frisk, spying on Muslims).Report

      • Avatar Saul DeGraw in reply to Mo says:

        I thought I made this point in the post and think it is important. It is very hard to get into Smith and Haverford. Not as hard as Harvard, Yale, or MIT perhaps but still very hard and these students worked hard. Yet they might still face potentially precarious years after graduating because they are not quite elite enough to get courted or recruited.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Mo says:

        I don’t think any college degree should come with the expectation of being courted or recruited — in an ideal world. Show me what you can do, and let that speak for itself.Report

      • Avatar dhex in reply to Mo says:


        “Yet they might still face potentially precarious years after graduating because they are not quite elite enough to get courted or recruited.”

        there are quite a few dented pearls over this line of thinking. it strikes me as a weird attitude to have, but i hadda work for a livin’.Report

  5. Avatar Peter Moore says:

    “Defenses of the students call out students” => “Defenses of the students call out conservatives|detractors”?

    I”m a little confused on where you stand: you seem to be calling for more nuance/less knee-jerk polarization on both sides. But at least for Rice, Birgenau, and Ali, you don’t seem to offer any support for the anti-student side of the argument. So exactly how is characterizing the anti-student side in those cases as hippy-punching and (convenient) misapplication of the first amendment un-nuanced or overly partisan, as opposed to just true?Report

    • Avatar Saul DeGraw in reply to Peter Moore says:

      I’m largely sympathetic to the students but think there has to be a better way at viewing this story than Team Speaker or Team Student. This is one place where a nuanced view is possible but seems to be overridden by a desire to signal what team you are on.

      As I said below, I am more sympathetic to protesting against Rice than Lagarde.Report

  6. Avatar Tod Kelly says:

    I tend to think of all this as slow-news-day coverage. Student and faculty complaints/petitions/protests about speakers who are coming to campus is pretty universal. It happens to just about every speaker scheduled, by some group or sub-group, to one degree or another. Or at least it did where I went.Report

    • Avatar Saul DeGraw in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      We must be having a lot of slow news days because they has been going on in media coverage for a while.

      I generally agree. A law school professor told me about wanting to skip his undergrad graduation because the commencement speaker was the Shah of Iran and this was in the time when the Shah was seen as brutally anti-Democratic but the Iranian Revolution was still far way and no one thought a theocratic state would be put in place of the Shah.Report

  7. Avatar Lyle says:

    Let me put a question: Do the schools require attendance at graduation? If they do not and an graduate does not like the speaker, then skip the ceremony. Your diploma will arrive later in the mail. Of course I went to a very large school for undergraduate, and they just gave you a letter that said your diploma will be in the mail at graduation.Report

    • Avatar Will Truman in reply to Lyle says:

      @lyle My alma mater didn’t have fall-semester graduation ceremonies, so I didn’t walk or get a commencement address. Which disappoints me because graduating from college was a bigger deal for me than high school. There was never any doubt that I would graduate from high school, but my parents were warned when I was younger that I was not college material.

      It’s partially this feeling, though, that sort of make me less amenable to your solution. Graduates staying home and getting their degree by mail doesn’t strike me as a particularly good compromise. If a speaker is unacceptable (and I do think “unacceptable” is too broadly defined in some of the above cases, but that’s beside the point) then I think it is reasonable to say “I want to attend graduation and not have to listen to them.”Report

      • Could there be a compromise where the diplomas are handed out first and then the speech is given? I know that’s not the way things are done, but then a graduate could leave in protest. Of course, a lot of other graduates would leave from boredom, too.Report

      • Avatar Lyle in reply to Will Truman says:

        Of course the other solution is to just have no speaker, I am sure most of the graduates would not miss the speach, after all how many remember it a year later?Report

      • I think the speech adds something to the ceremony that one wouldn’t get just from walking on stage.

        I personally am not interested in the pomp and ceremony. I didn’t walk for my most recent (and hopefully last) degree, but I can see why it would be important for someone else and don’t particularly want to dismiss its importance for them.Report

      • …that one wouldn’t get just from walking on stage.

        At the sizable state school where I got my undergraduate degree many years ago, Masters and PhDs got to cross the stage. Bachelors graduates were asked to stand, college by college, for applause. ‘Cause it just took too long to read a thousand people’s names. I went out and celebrated with too much alcohol the night before and woke up in a strange bed about the time the ceremony started.Report

      • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Will Truman says:

        I would recommend to students who do not want to listen to the speaker to get a music player and the gaudiest, most obvious headphones you can manage, and tune out for the speech.Report

      • Avatar morat20 in reply to Will Truman says:

        I went to my bachelor’s graduation. I didn’t for my Master’s (it was ten years later).

        had a nice party with friends and family though.Report

    • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Lyle says:

      “So what if you can’t stand that minister? Just don’t come to the ceremony. We’ll still be married legally.”Report

    • Avatar Lyle in reply to Lyle says:

      Note that at large schools where they have an undergraduate ceremony, they often don’t call names at all, just say all those folks who have earned degrees have them. (After all with 4 to 5 thousand graduates calling all the names would take a long time).Report

  8. Avatar D Clarity says:

    The IMF is not a perfect organization because nothing by humans is ever perfect but to say that the IMF belongs to a corrupt system that fuels oppression is cartoonishly wrong and simplistically utopian view of how the world works.

    So which is it, you’ve never read Confessions of an Economic Hit Man before, or you think the author is a crank? If 1/100th of what that book says is true, Christine Lagarde belongs in the same category as Rice. A big if, admittedly.

    As for commencement ceremonies, they’re kind of 20th century. I mean, if there’s someone you want to deliver a message to a graduating class, have them send an email or something. Done.

    I didn’t go to mine, I don’t remember what I did instead but it was either writing code, drinking beer, or both.Report

    • For the record, I read the book, and I think the author is a crank and don’t believe much of it. Maybe I believe 1/100, but I think I’d have to believe at least 50/100 to get me concerned.Report

    • Avatar Saul DeGraw in reply to D Clarity says:

      I haven’t read that book but it seems very sensationalistic based on what I’ve heard.

      There are always people who don’t attend commencement but as far as I can tell they are in a minority. Most people tend to like graduation ceremonies. Then again I was a theatre major, I appreciate the drama of the ceremony and the symbolism. Plus my undergrad degree is in nifty Latin. The one ceremony I did not want to attend was the one for my Masters degree institution where everyone got together in Madison Square Garden. My division had a smaller ceremony the day before that was more meaningful but my mom wanted to attend the big one, so I did.Report

    • Avatar Don Zeko in reply to D Clarity says:

      I was in the band that played the processional when I was in undergrad, so I went to graduation every year and spent my time playing the same godawful piece of music over and over and over again. I think I feel some of the good professor’s pain.Report

  9. Avatar Kazzy says:

    Your initial premise is flawed.
    Key quote:

    “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.”Report

    • Avatar Saul DeGraw in reply to Kazzy says:

      FIRE is a good organization. 100 from 2006-2014 is still not that great a number considering that the are north of 4000 hundred institutes of higher learning the United States and some big ones have multiple graduations a year.Report

  10. Avatar Francis says:

    Way too many rich and powerful people (Eich / Sterling / Birgenau) seem to think that they can speak and act without consequence. Far too often they seem startled by the very idea that their speech can draw protests.

    Sterling’s getting kicked out of his private club. Eich jumped ahead of being pushed because he lost the confidence of his community. Birgenau didn’t have the balls to stand up to a bunch of students? Between ordering the police crackdown on Berkeley when he was out of town and running from controversy, he’s showing himself to be a real profile in leadership.

    Also, there’s a huge difference between a university withdrawing an honor (Ali) and a speaker (allegedly) bowing to pressure (Rice and Birgenau). For fish’s sake, Rice was the Bush administration’s lead public advocate for war! She can argue for killing Americans and Iraqis in the confines of friendly TV studios but she’s too afraid to face a student protest? Another real champion of First Amendment values.Report

    • Avatar Saul DeGraw in reply to Francis says:

      In my essay I said I was highly sympathetic to the protests againsts Rice, Birgenau, and Ali if a bit perplexed by the LeGrande protest. That being said, Smith and Haverford are small schools so signatures of nearly 500 students count more at said institutions and could represent a majority and I am cool with that.

      It is a bit harder to say what percentage of Rutgers students were really opposed to Dr. Rice is harder to gauge. The same would be true with any speaker at any large university.Report

    • Avatar Saul DeGraw in reply to Francis says:

      Your comment sort of gets my frustration at the whole story though. It seems like you have to be either completely for all the protests or you are a horrible, horrible person and a student/hippie puncher. There is no room for nuance or saying that some protests are more understandable than others or questioning whether the protests at Rutgers really reflect the feelings of the majority of a very large university with a presumably very diverse student body.

      This lack of being able to express nuance is disturbing. There should be more than being on team red or team student/blue for this issue.Report

  11. Avatar Kazzy says:

    The year after I graduated, my school invited Condi Rice to speak at the main ceremony (there are then individual ceremonies for each of the four undergrad colleges). I understand a number of students turned their backs, left, and/or refused to attend in protest. This was in 2006.Report

    • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Kazzy says:

      I also just remembered that Dr. Paul Farmer was the speaker at my own commencement. He seemed a relatively safe choice, though if I remember correctly, there were some stirrings about inviting someone who advocated condom usage to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS to speak at a Jesuit institution. These got very little traction. The same group of people also raised objections whenever Ted Kennedy or John Kerry did anything with the school because of stances on abortion. It seemed that being pro-life wasn’t as big an issue as being Catholic and pro-life.Report

  12. Nuance, schmuance–these students are merely reveling in the petty power of the heckler’s veto. David Mamet had them spelled out a couple of years ago:

    “They were and are children of privilege… the privilege taught, learned, and imbibed, in a “liberal arts education” is the privilege to indict. These children have, in the main, never worked, learned to obey, command, construct, amend, or complete – to actually contribute to the society. They have learned to be shrill, and that their indictment, on the economy, on sex, on race, on the environment, though based on no experience other than hearsay, must trump any discourse, let alone opposition. It occurred to me that I had seen this behavior elsewhere, where it was called “a developmental difficulty.””
    — David Mamet, The Secret Knowledge, 2011

    The best summation of these current disinvitations was penned by Stephen L. Carter:

    Given your generation’s penchant for shutting down speakers with whom you disagree, I am assuming that you have no intention of playing any serious adult role in mediating those conflicts. And that’s fine. We should leave the task of mediation to those unsophisticated enough to be sensitive to the concerns of both sides. […] The literary critic George Steiner, in a wonderful little book titled “Nostalgia for the Absolute,” long ago predicted this moment. We have an attraction, he contended, to higher truths that can sweep away complexity and nuance. We like systems that can explain everything. Intellectuals in the West are nostalgic for the tight grip religion once held on the Western imagination. They are attracted to modes of thought that are as comprehensive and authoritarian as the medieval church. You and your fellow students — and your professors as well; one mustn’t forget their role — are therefore to be congratulated for your involvement in the excellent work of bringing back the Middle Ages.Report

    • Avatar Saul DeGraw in reply to The Sanity Inspector says:

      Would you feel the same about conservative students protesting a liberal speaker?

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Saul DeGraw says:

        You’re using a letter that says “next time, I hope they show better judgment in picking a speaker” as your example?Report

      • Avatar aaron david in reply to Saul DeGraw says:

        Looking at Kazzy’s example of students turning their backs to a speaker, who is also African-American, what would we say about a group of conservative students who also turned there backs on speaker whom they disagreed with, and was also A-A?
        I am pretty sure I know what the answer would be.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Saul DeGraw says:


        I thought the protest was interesting for that very reason. Here you had a group of very liberal students protesting one of the most powerful black women in our nation’s history. Now, Rice shouldn’t get a pass on anything she’s done because she is black and/or a woman. But she — like everyone else — is defined by far more than a job she held and actions she took in service of that job. Specifically, Rice was formerly a senior administrator at a prestigious educational institution and, as such, was positioned to talk on a number of issues beyond her political career and which were highly appropriate to the event.

        For some, what she did while SoS are unforgivable and enough to undo any good she’s done or will do in other roles. I may disagree with those people, but they are entitled to that opinion. From the few students I talked to and some of the pieces I saw penned by those participating in or supporting the protest, I got the impression that this level of thought wasn’t present for all of them. Rather, Rice was a symbol — a very specific symbol — and they had to respond with a symbol of their own. What was lost in this was all the other things she did and does symbolize.Report

      • Avatar notme in reply to Saul DeGraw says:


        We all know the conservatives would be called racist while the liberals are just exercising their right to speak. It is an old double standard.Report

    • Avatar Francis in reply to The Sanity Inspector says:

      Did the students threaten to heckle? Did the administration offer to provide a forum for the students’ point of view to be heard?

      When you’re sucking up to the rich and powerful, you can always focus on the acts of the most extreme to justify your suppression of any opposition. Frankly, I think the students are getting a great lesson in modern conservative values.Report

    • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to The Sanity Inspector says:

      More of the Carter quote:

      Then there are your fellows at Rutgers University, who rose up to force the estimable Condoleezza Rice, former secretary of state and national security adviser, to withdraw. The protest was worded with unusual care, citing the war in Iraq and the “torture” practiced by the Central Intelligence Agency

      And no doubt he’d disapprove if anyone objected to Charles Manson for his involvement in “mass murder”.Report

  13. Avatar James Hanley says:

    A few years ago my college invited Pat Boone to be the commencement speaker. He was a last-minute replacement for someone (I forget whom) who had to pull out after having agreed to speak, and if I understand correctly, was recommended by a member of our Board who had recently written a book about him.

    This was controversial because of Boone’s anti-SSM stance, which was seen by many as a slight against our gay students (not that we have many who are openly gay, but that was the delightful year that our openly gay male student who always wore a dress graduated–and did wear a dress and high heels as he walked across the stage).

    I had mixed feelings. I don’t like trying to shut down speech, but I also found the choice offensive. It provided a good opportunity to show how these things should work, though. Our Ethics Institute sponsored a well-attended panel discussion with speakers on both sides of the issue (I was a panelist, as was–bravely, or at least smartly, I’d say–the college president), and someone produced some rainbow buttons that a lot of faculty members (including me) and students wore on their robes. And then we let Boone speak without hindrance.

    I wish he’d never been invited, but once the invitation was given, I think everything that followed was as close to an ideal method of handling it as could be achieved.Report

    • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to James Hanley says:

      At least he didn’t sing.Report

    • Avatar notme in reply to James Hanley says:

      The problem is that you are rarely going to find a speaker that doesn’t offend someone’s sensitivities today since everyone has to wear them on their shirt sleeve. So why not be polite?Report

      • Avatar James Hanley in reply to notme says:

        Eh, not everyone is associated with anti-gay bigotry or wars that are based on false premises and result in torture. In my 12 years teaching, we’ve had one protest, and that was for a guy chosen quickly as a replacement. It’s not that hard to avoid.

        The difficulty high-profile schools face is that they want very high-profile serious speakers for commencement. It’s one of the factors that marks how important the school is. But of course those are the folks most likely to be publicly associated with controversial issues.

        I do agree with being polite, though.Report

    • Avatar Chris in reply to James Hanley says:

      @james-hanley , I think this is a great example of how one should handle these situations. I have very little doubt that sometime in the near future it will be as difficult for anti-gay bigots to get high profile gigs as it will for blatantly racist people to do so, but in the meantime, visible protests are the best way to handle them (I actually have no problem with people turning their backs to a speaker, either).Report

  14. Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist says:

    Perhaps our faculty members can enlighten me to any flaws in this idea, but there seems like a very easy fix to this. Have the administration compile a list of who they would like to invite, then have the graduating class vote. If the top choice can’t come, you invite the second banana, & so on.Report

    • @madrocketscientist

      I can think of two issues here:

      1) I think there are just a lot of politics involved in who gets these invites, especially at the prestigious colleges, and ultimately administrators just aren’t that interested in seeking to please the particular graduating class whose commencement any given speaker speaks at. It’s just not their driving concern at all (though presumably they’d like to avoid major blow-ups like this, which to Saul’s point, are rare).

      2) Subjecting the decision to a majority veto/selection doesn’t provide much protection against disruptive opposition. It almost always only takes a vocal, active minority of students to create a disruption like this. Getting majority assent is one rhetorical cudgel that could be used to counter such minority opposition, but there’s no reason to believe it will be a reliable one. And given (1) above, without that reliability, the value of subjecting the decision to student voting just isn;t there for administrators, who, again, often have their own considerations to attend to in making these selection.

      This is pure theorizing, but it’s what makes sense as an explanation for why what does indeed seem like a rather obvious procedure isn’t in place in more universities. All that being said, I’m assuming the norm is significant consultation with student reps.Report

    • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

      These speakers aren’t chosen with the graduating students in mind. They’re chosen for institutional purposes. Students may not wan Condi Rice, but the president and Board want a Secretary of State. Or in the case of a small college like mine, they wanted a woman–unfortunately I forget her name–who runs a big foundation in the state, and is married to one of the principles of a large family-owned corporation in our state. It wasn’t a great talk, and I imagine the grads remember as little of it as I do, but those wealthy people are now much more aware of our college.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to James Hanley says:

        Yes, this is the kind of politics I meant above in case it wasn’t clear. Relationship-tending, favor-returning, general schilling. The students just aren’t the constituency for the choice of speaker.Report

      • Avatar Saul DeGraw in reply to James Hanley says:


        If it was Herman Miller, they could at least have furnished the college with cool chairs and sofas.Report

    • Avatar Saul DeGraw in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

      @mad-rocket-scientist @michael-drew @jm3z-aitch

      I think at my undergrad there was a student committee who came up with a list of names, the students got to write a preference list, and then the final decision belonged to the admin/board. I’m sure my commencement speaker was Tony Kushner because the drama department did a production of Angels in America that year (it was my senior project with a group of other seniors.) My law school also had a student committee to find a commencement speaker.

      Maybe I am being too cynical but I doubt people like David Foster Wallace or Stephen Colbert would be picked without student selection committees.Report

  15. Avatar Alan Scott says:

    So maybe it’s just me, but I think it’s pretty weird that almost any of these people were invited to speak at a graduation ceremony.

    I mean, the graduation isn’t a symposium where the attendees gather to hear important people talk. It’s a ceremony where people dress up in formal academic regalia and get diplomas. When you ask Ayaan Hirsi Ali to speak, you’ve pretty much decided to make the event about something other than the graduates graduating by default.Report

    • Avatar dhex in reply to Alan Scott says:

      not necessarily, though probably most of the time.

      ali could (theoretically) speak on courage; on endurance; on the rights of women and minorities; etc.Report

  16. Avatar Kazzy says:

    Thoughts on Smith’s President Kathleen McCartney’s comments on the matter?

    “I want to underscore this fact: An invitation to speak at a commencement is not an endorsement of all views or policies of an individual or the institution she or he leads. Such a test would preclude virtually anyone in public office or position of influence. Moreover, such a test would seem anathema to our core values of free thought and diversity of opinion. I remain committed to leading a college where differing views can be heard and debated with respect.”

    I will say that the offering of an honorary degree might change the calculus ever so much, though I presume this is standard operating procedure and that literally every commencement speaker receives one.Report

    • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Kazzy says:

      I don’t think the latter is the case.

      I like her statement.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Michael Drew says:

        I think the honorary degree matters insofar as it is making the speaker a part of the graduating class, even if only symbolically so. The practice in general is odd to me. I know there was a mini-kerfuffle when Puff Daddy received an honorary doctorate from Howard — a school he had dropped out of sans degree. Some students were very upset by this (though I don’t think they took any issue with Puff himself, at least not politically; musically is another question).

        I don’t work in academia, so maybe those who do can shed more light on the matter, but it seems odd to give someone a degree they did not earn. It cheapens the degrees of those who studied and worked hard to earn them.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Michael Drew says:

        And I, too, liked her statement.Report

      • Sorry, I meant the latter part of the latter.

        I agree it changes the calculus, indeed I think it changes it considerably. Abiding issuing a a special honor is emphatically not the same thing as being willing to listen to views you dislike (or to someone’s views who’s done things you find abhorrent or distasteful). Teaching students to be willing to listen to diverse views respectfully is part and parcel of the university’s reason for being (which is not to say there’s zero reason to oppose someone controversial being given a scarce slot speaking at a particular event). Students should be expected to do that under reasonable circumstances (i.e. I myself would have no problem if Rice were a speker at a commencement at which I was a graduate and probably would think my classmates should register spoken but not disruptive opposition if they felt so compelled.) If a university chooses to give a special honor to a controversial guest, though, they have no recourse to the values of free inquiry to help defend that choice. It’s pure endorsement and concrete action, and IMO the bar for expecting students to abide it is far lower than for expecting them to listen respectfully to a speaker who isn’t receiving any honor greater than the invitation to speak.

        I just don’t think it’s anywhere close to every one commencement speaker that receives an honorary degree. I could be wrong, but I’m guessing it’s only a small majority at most and wouldn’t be surprised if it was less.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Michael Drew says:

        Got it. Thanks, @michael-drew . You sum up my thoughts better than I could. The endorsement of an honorary degree is exactly what is so problematic.

        I’ll leave it up to others more in the know to educate me on the frequency of honorary degrees. I’m also curious if the person can actually make claim to them. Can Puff call himself a doctor? Can he list Howard on his resume now?Report

    • Avatar Saul DeGraw in reply to Kazzy says:

      I generally agree but the protestors and their supporters say the opposite.Report

  17. Avatar Damon says:

    Yeah, I’ve never been a big fan of guest speakers for graduation. It’s MY gratuation, why do I want some dumbass politician there using the forum as a bully pulpit. I likely disagree with his politics so less enjoyment for me. Really controversial folks aren’t going to be invited, and if they are, never allowed to speak, and if they are, they probably won’t speak on topics of controversy, so the enjoyment of seeing controversy talk won’t happen.

    Nah, let me listen the Magna Cum Lade blather on a bit and give me my fake diploma (real one mailed to you later once the schools validated you don’t owe them any money) and let me go celebrate with my friends/family.Report

  18. It’s the Ali protest that really sticks in my craw – for the other three mentioned in the OP, the protests are at least about an actual course of actions that were taken by the speaker rather than merely things they’ve said.

    But in three of the four cases, the colleges at issue are liberal arts colleges, and I have a huge problem with students of liberal arts colleges seeking to so restrict commencement speakers and, indeed, honorary degrees. The liberal arts are supposed to be about forcing you to encounter and address differing head-on. That is not this.

    What bugs me even more about the Ali situation in particular is that it frankly comes across as liberal-splaining: “you may well have suffered more than anything we have ever even imagined in our overprivileged lives, but the views you’ve developed on Islam from those experiences are beyond the pale and wrong.”

    Look – I think Ali’s conclusions are often excessive and I certainly disagree with her on quite a bit. But I don’t think it’s at all difficult to understand how and why she might have come to those conclusions, and that her views are important to hear. It frankly just takes a modicum of empathy and willingness to encounter opposing viewpoints, which these students don’t seem interested in providing despite that being a good chunk of the point of a liberal arts education.Report

    • Avatar Glyph in reply to Mark Thompson says:

      Ali, by dint of her experiences, is a really uncomfortable proposition for many people. She’s an interesting figure to me, like (in a different way) Hitchens was.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Glyph says:

        Its interesting that you mention Hitchens. As I mentioned bellow, they share many of the same beliefs regarding Islam or religion in general. The problem for Ali is that her personal experiences make it much harder to dismiss her than it does for people to disregard Hitchens. People can always waive their hand and say that Hitchens is just another white guy with no respect for other cultures. The ability to dismiss Hitchens ironically gave him more of an ability to speak because nobody had to take him seriously. You can’t do that with Ali. Since she lived through certain things, its much more difficult to entirely dismiss her conclusions. You either have to attack her as horrible person or engage with her opinions.Report

    • Avatar morat20 in reply to Mark Thompson says:

      I think the students paid tens of thousands of dollars for their degree (minimum) and four years of work, and for a ceremony honoring them they’re pretty much in the right to not ask for a speaker that is gonna grind someone’s gears.

      It’s the same logic that leads to me going “Hey, man, happy birthday. I thought about getting you something you hated then thought ‘Man, better not. He hates this and it’s his birthday'”Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to morat20 says:

        I’m trying to think of someone, anyone, who wouldn’t grind someone’s gears.

        Mr. Rogers. Jim Henson.

        Aaaaaand that’s all I have on my list. And they’re both dead.Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to morat20 says:

        They certainly have earned the right to protest a speaker that grinds their gears.Report

      • Avatar morat20 in reply to morat20 says:

        Yeah, but ‘I’m not a fan’ is a bit different than ‘Seriously, that is like the opposite of what I believe’.

        Yeah, it means the speech at your commencement is going to (1) come from someone that hasn’t made any waves later and (2) is probably going to be really bland and (3) likely come from a former student.

        So what? I mean, what’s the speech FOR? What value is added by having it come from, say, a former Secretary of State? What is he or she gonna say that’s more valuable than what any successful former student says?

        It’s certainly going to cost you more.

        The speech isn’t supposed to challenge beliefs, or shape your future, or anything like that. It’s an hour long “You guys worked hard, you studied, now you’re gonna go out in the world and do things! Hopefully things you like! Things you consider good. Welcome to adulthood, suckers”

        Why would you hire — give actual money to — anyone even vaguely controversial for that?

        Honestly, it seems entirely chosen to enhance the prestige of the school — “We got Rice to speak!” and have jack-all to do with the students, which is precisely why they SHOULD complain.Report

      • Avatar Saul DeGraw in reply to morat20 says:


        Other commencement speakers at my college were Stephen King, Tom Hanks, and Samuel L. Jackson. They all had kids who happened to be graduating when the spoke…

        Meryl Streep would be a good commencement speaker. She graduated from my alma mater.Report

    • Avatar Chris in reply to Mark Thompson says:

      I can say that if I were a Muslim student, I would not appreciate the idea that someone who’s said the sorts of things she’s said about Islam, and in fact about me (because she’s essentially said that Islam should be illegal), would be given such a prominent speaking gig at my school. Though as I’ve said above, my approach would be to protest, not to demand that she lose the gig.Report

      • Avatar Glyph in reply to Chris says:

        Would a greater degree of cultural familiarity with the stuff she’s gone through make any difference in making what she’s said a little more, if not justifiable, at least understandable?

        What if Ali had been an abused Catholic altar boy, had that abuse institutionally covered up, and then had subsequently said, among other things, that Catholicism should be outlawed?

        Would we give Catholics as much leeway for being offended if she was commencement speaker?

        Or would we say, “Well, you gotta understand where she’s coming from here, and what happened to *her* is pretty offensive too…”

        (edited first para for clarity hopefully, it was orig. a mess)Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Chris says:

        I’m with Glyph on this. Lots of people who grew up in a particular religion and had negative experiences have turned against their former faith full stop. We see this in Roman Catholicism, Ultra-Orthodox Judaism, Evangelcial Protestantism, etc. Its not that dificult to find essays and rants denouncing the Roman Catholic Church as a criminal enterprise and calling for reprisals against it for its cover up the sexual abuse scandal.

        I think that whats gets people in knots about Ali is that she lived through certain experiences so you can’t simply denounce her as not knowing what she is taking about.Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to Chris says:

        Glyph, I think it makes it understandable. That doesn’t make it right, and it would not, I suspect, lessen the perceived insult, and in fact potential danger of her views to Muslim students. So I don’t think they’d be particularly less offended that she was chosen, and I don’t think they should be.Report

      • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Chris says:

        If members of any group are unwilling to face up to the reality of the bad actors among their ranks, I’m not sure how seriously we should take them.

        A rational member would see someone like Ali & recognize that A) her experience is real; B) her opinions are valid; C) protesting/silencing her serves no good other than to spare me from having to think about the people who hurt her who fall under my umbrella.

        I may not be able to directly affect the bad actors she endured, but I can act as an ambassador of good faith/will, listen to her, and then strive to show her that my group is more diverse & nuanced in hopes that I can affect her POV.Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to Chris says:

        When someone suggests that my ethnicity, in essence, should be “crushed,” and that teaching my religion should be against the law, I’m probably not going to be particularly concerned about the validity of her points about bad actors. Here is how she put it:

        Hirsi Ali: I think that we are at war with Islam. And there’s no middle ground in wars. Islam can be defeated in many ways. For starters, you stop the spread of the ideology itself; at present, there are native Westerners converting to Islam, and they’re the most fanatical sometimes. There is infiltration of Islam in the schools and universities of the West. You stop that. You stop the symbol burning and the effigy burning, and you look them in the eye and flex your muscles and you say, “This is a warning. We won’t accept this anymore.” There comes a moment when you crush your enemy. Reason: Militarily? Hirsi Ali: In all forms, and if you don’t do that, then you have to live with the consequence of being crushed

        Imagine if she were talking about any other religious or ethnic group. How would we be reacting?Report

      • Avatar Glyph in reply to Chris says:

        …yeah, that’s not great.Report

      • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Chris says:


        About the same way I’d react when I read a transcript of an influential Imam in the middle east talking about destroying the West.

        Does this person have the ability to do so? No? So what, they are pissed off & ranting & possibly with good reason. Honestly, I’d be more worried about the Imam, since the likelihood of others being able to engage his words with counter speech is probably limited, whereas Ali is in a pretty active idea marketplace.Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to Chris says:

        @mad-rocket-scientist , for the most part I agree, though I wouldn’t want Imams saying such things giving graduation speeches either, for the same reason. And I’d find it perfectly reasonable if people protested them if and when they did.

        I will note, however, that Ali’s anti-Islamic education campaign took place in parts of Europe where immigration by Muslim immigrants has resulted in a great deal of xenophobia and anti-Islamic sentiment, including in politics, so it’s not like this is completely innocuous.Report

      • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Chris says:


        though I wouldn’t want Imams saying such things giving graduation speeches either

        I think the value of the Boo-Hiss is lost on people. Let them speak. If what they say is so offensive, boo them. Although I would very much let them speak first (as opposed to the habit of some of pulling a hecklers veto to the very presence of a person at an event or in a meeting)!

        that Ali’s anti-Islamic education campaign took place in parts of Europe

        I know parts of Europe have free speech protections that are lacking, but I think the marketplace of ideas is still functional to some degree over there.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Chris says:

        yeah… It’s australia that bans people for free speech. and it’s Israel that bans WWII video games (folks smuggle them in).Report

      • Avatar Alan Scott in reply to Chris says:

        @mad-rocket-scientist , if people are booing at a graduation, something has gone horribly wrong. Even if I agreed with someone as controversial as Ali a hundred percent, I would still not want her at my graduation, because goddamnit, that’s just not what graduations are for.Report

      • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Chris says:


        I had suggested before that schools offer the graduating class a choice of speakers & have them vote. Those who are more in tune with the politics of a university explained that the choice of a graduation speaker is not about the graduating class, but politics & networking.

        If that is the case & the whole affair is not about the students, then booing is one way for the students to let everyone know they don’t appreciate such things.

        Although personally, I still think massive, brightly colored or brightly lit headphones & a music player is a great option as well.Report

    • Avatar Saul DeGraw in reply to Mark Thompson says:


      I disagree since Brandeis is a Jewish institution and would protest if say Boston College invited a self-loathing Jew to be the commencement speaker. Improvement in the Middle East probably hinges on improvement of Jewish-Muslim feelings and relations. Inviting someone like Ali would be like if they invited Pamela Geller, it is explicit Islamobashing.

      The one that is most perplexing to me is Lagarde because she is being punished for the IMF of the 1990s.Report

      • I think there’s a serious world of difference between Ali and Geller. Possibly even an entire galaxy. Women’s rights in fundamentalist Islamic countries is no laughing matter. What’s more, agree or disagree with her, she is most certainly a free speech hero who has risked her life to speak.Report

      • Avatar Saul DeGraw in reply to Saul DeGraw says:


        I agree partially. I do not doubt Ali’s experiences but she still takes her experiences and writs them large to a religion with over 1 billion adherents. That is highly problematic. I know people who grew up in Christian fundamentalist/evangelical households (Jesus Camp stuff basically) and are now deeply bitter and antagonistic towards all religion but especially Christianity. I also know many people who grew up in households that were Christian/Protestant but not at Jesus Camp levels of intensity. I don’t doubt the experiences of my friends who are bitter but it doesn’t mean that all of Christianity is damned. Just like all of Judaism is not damned by someone who renounced their Hasidism.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Saul DeGraw says:

        Do remember that some of the most significant problems in Islamic countries are NOT endorsed by Islam.
        Also, there is a WIDE range of women’s rights in “fundamentalist islamic countries” — Iranian women fight in the military, ride motorcycles, and even *illicitly but permitted* get drunk in bars with coworkers (note: these are middle class women).
        Saudi Arabian women can’t even drive.Report

      • I agree that she’s wrong in her diagnosis. But what happened to her was also not simply something that can be chalked up to a few bad actors – what happened to her was a function of religious laws and cultural norms. The point isn’t that she’s right – as I said, I disagree with her – it’s that she’s someone who deserves to be listened to and someone who is indeed courageous. I am deeply uncomfortable with the notion of overprivileged college students – at a liberal arts institution, no less – feigning to pass judgment on an individual who has suffered as she has suffered and has fought to rectify that suffering in others as much as she has.

        What’s more – amongst the justifications for opposing her speaking was this:

        The selection of Ms. Hirsi Ali further suggests to the public that violence toward girls and women is particular to Islam or the Two-Thirds World, thereby obscuring such violence in our midst among non-Muslims, including on our own campus.


        To which I am aghast: the notion that addressing the specific problems of women’s rights in the Islamic world (and particularly the Arab Islamic world) somehow obscures violence against non-Islamic women, along with the implication that campus sexual violence is on the whole a bigger problem than the former is nothing short of absurd. People can walk and chew gum at the same time, for starters. And I’m absolutely befuddled by the suggestion that it is inappropriate to concern ourselves with the massive problem of women’s rights in the Islamic and – especially – Arab-dominated world until the problem of sexual violence in the West is completely eliminated.

        Indeed, if these faculty members wished to handle the issue wisely, they would view Ali’s appearance and discussion as a springboard for discussing sexual violence in the West and on campus. When I was in college before 9/11, in fact, the feminist organizations on campus did precisely this, quite loudly pushing the issue of women’s rights under the Taliban even as they pursued the issue of sexual assaults on campus with equal vigor. Indeed, that campaign was the first time I ever even heard the word “Taliban.” The simultaneous campaign was the first time I ever heard the “1 in 5” statistic.

        Finally, it seems worth mentioning that Ali was not supposed to be the commencement speaker, but was rather only supposed to be one of several honorary degree recipients and speakers. The actual commencement speaker was always supposed to be this guy:

      • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Saul DeGraw says:


        thereby obscuring such violence in our midst among non-Muslims, including on our own campus.

        There is a term for this rhetorical tactic, but it escapes me. Either way, it’s an a$$hole excuse meant to justify the action & divert attention from the real reason for protest.Report

    • Avatar Saul DeGraw in reply to Mark Thompson says:

      I also think the liberal arts protests are more valid because their small size could mean an actual consensus. Something like Rice at Rutgers was probably not majority thought. It could be though.Report

    • Ali would have punctured the students’ multi-cultural bubble, would have roughed up the idea they’ve been indoctrinated with: that all cultures are the same but for holidays, headgear and cuisine, and that we are all middle class liberals under the skin. She would have rubbed their faces in the blunt fact that the world is a dangerous place full of nasty people motivated by evil ideologies–and that the students are wrong about who those people are.Report

      • Avatar Saul DeGraw in reply to The Sanity Inspector says:

        So should Bingham Young or Liberty invite Tony Kushner to be the commencement speaker?

        Now I will tell you what it is like to grow up gay and Jewish in the deep South….Report

      • Avatar Saul DeGraw in reply to The Sanity Inspector says:

        Or maybe Liberty can invite Richard Dawkins? Maybe Notre Dame could invite someone who renounced the priesthood or as Glyph noted was abused by a priest or a nun like young women who got pregnant out of wedlock in 1950s Ireland.

        Somehow I doubt you would support this.Report

      • Maybe Notre Dame could invite someone who renounced the priesthood or as Glyph noted was abused by a priest or a nun like young women who got pregnant out of wedlock in 1950s Ireland.

        Personally, I’d be very interested in seeing how these protests would shake out. What would the signs say? What would the slogans be? When we marched down the street screaming that the answer to “WHEN DO WE WANT IT?” was “NOW!”, I wonder what the answer to the question “WHAT DO WE WANT?” would have been.Report

      • Avatar morat20 in reply to The Sanity Inspector says:

        It’s amazing how often the world-wise, “I’m not in your stupid little bubble” people come off so…poorly.

        I mean, Insanity there — maybe he’s got a point. But he’s making it in a fashion that just screams he’s about two drinks away from dropping racial epithets and muttering about [insert ethnic or religious group here] stole all the jobs.

        And even then — what’s his point? Those students, at their graduation? They NEED to have someone come mug their world-view. Right then and there, at their party. That’s the time to shock the little snots, kick them around a little, show them whose boss.

        Not like, you know, the year before. Or next week. Right then. At their graduation. That’s THE time to tell those little jerk liberals (for surely, only liberals have ever protested anything. or apparently gone to college) that they’re just wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong….

        Strangely, I can’t tell if he’s angry at them for daring to protest, for daring to graduate, for daring to go to a specific college, or for not listening to an amazing women I’m pretty certain he hadn’t heard of two weeks ago.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to The Sanity Inspector says:

        yeah. The temptation to troll is rising (I’d throw in a part about genital mutilation, the removal of significant portions of someone’s sexual organs, and then flip it around to be about circumcision. ‘e wouldn’t listen though, so why bother?)Report

      • Since both sides, in theory, would do it, we can come to the conclusion that there’s no difference and, therefore, nothing to be ashamed of?

        Is that the gist?Report

  19. Avatar Jaybird says:

    The point of the commencement speaker is to have someone vaguely inspiring give a speech that says, effectively:

    I sat where you sit now. Here’s a funny story about me being yelled at.
    I had problems that you can relate to. Here’s a funny story about me being confounded.
    I came up with solutions that resulted in me standing here giving this speech now.
    As such, I feel qualified to give the following advice: Never stop learning and be true to yourself.
    You can do anything you set your mind to.
    Go out and change the world!

    I suppose that I can technically understand wanting to protest someone you suspect will give a different speech than that one but… man I miss having the free time I had in college.Report

  20. morat20: I’ve been aware of Ayaan Hirsi Ali for many years, back when she was the only Dutch MP with any balls.Report

  21. Avatar wardsmith says:

    @saul-degraw You make the contention that there are thousands of commencements where this “isn’t” happening. But it isn’t just commencement speakers. And these speakers are really another tip of the iceberg when you consider that college administrators across the country do NOT want to end up in the news for cancelling yet another commencement speaker and be shown to be the feckless wimps they (largely) are.

    As a “moderate” liberal you no doubt look on with approval when your right leaning opposites need to hire bodyguards or are simply denied the opportunity to speak at all. Congrats on that. I’m sure you’d have looked on with approval in Germany in the 30’s… what not so much? As Jaybird often says, be careful what you wish for and be very careful what you get. Ok, Jaybird didn’t say that but I’m riffing off his chords.Report

    • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to notme says:

      They should have welcomed Birgenau. And, during his speech, stormed the stage and maced him. This would have allowed him to demonstrate proper technique for non-violent protest, and everyone would have left the commencement as finer, wiser people.Report

      • Avatar Barry in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        Except that left-wing violence actually gets punished in the USA.

        But it would be fun to see. And we should then jail Birgenau for ‘resisting arrest’ and ‘assault on an officer’ if he even lifted an eyebrow.Report

    • Avatar Saul DeGraw in reply to notme says:

      One college president defends another.

      In other news, Franco is still dead.Report

    • Avatar Saul DeGraw in reply to notme says:

      Overseeing the macing of peaceful protestors is a great showing of Quaker values!Report

  22. Okay, enough complaining–time for constructive solutions! How about this: A college will present to its graduating students a slate of several commencement speakers, say a dozen. The students will go into the graduation auditorium or stadium, pull out their smart devices, plug in their earbuds, and listen to the commencement speech of the speaker of their choice, delivered by podcast or live from a remote location. If anyone still protests, then that means that they just cannot bear the very existence of a differing opinion, and ought not to have been in college (as it has traditionally been known) in the first place.Report

  23. Avatar Shelley says:

    I can tell you that out here in California, Condi Rice is busy “rehabilitating” her image by portraying herself as a Civil Rights heroine in preparation for a run for office, just as Bush is trying to get back in the public’s good humor and good graces with his so-called painting.

    I was glad to see somebody remembering what Condi really did. Let’s refuse to forget.Report

  24. Avatar Barry says:

    BTW, some people on other sites had some good comments.

    The best is that these people have all had lavish platforms to say whatever they’ve wanted to say, and will have those for decades. *We* have to live with the results of what they said and did. If they lose one small platform for one day, f*ck them. We will never have a day where we don’t have to live in the world those people helped made. We will never have a day where we don’t have to pay for what those people inflicted on us.Report

    • Avatar Barry in reply to Barry says:

      Another comment (can’t recall if it was directed at Timothy Egan or that Yale Law School professor’s crap):

      ‘These guys define a ‘healthy free speech environment’ as one where the authorities pick a speaker, pay them, grant them honors and a special platform, and the little people STFU, sit down and don’t say anything back’.

      In addition, I notice that neither of those people contacted the objectors, and offered their space of public debate.Report

  25. Avatar Burt Likko says:

    By the way, did anyone catch Ordinary Times alumnus Elias Isquith on NPR this Wednesday debating this point with Greg Lukianoff, the president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education? A really great discussion on the part of both panelists. (The Hastings grad talking about her failed protest against Janet Napolitano, not so much.) If you care about the topic, it’s worth your time.Report