The Campus Commencement Controversy
I find it a bit shocking the whole campus commencement controversy has blown up in the national media, at least for people who care about these things. As far as I can tell, there have only been four examples of commencement speakers choosing to stand down or get offers rescinded because of student protests: Condoleezza Rice at Rutgers, IMF Cheif Christine Lagarde at Smith, Former University of California Honcho Robert J. Birgeneau at Haverford, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali at Brandeis. There are thousands of colleges and universities in the United States and most colleges and they will have commencements and commencement speakers that go off with out a hitch even for fairly controversial speakers. I think that this fight is a proxy war for ideological bashing of real or perceived foes and for other issues surrounding the economy including the student debt crisis which might or might not be crushing economic recovery. Student Debt certainly is a huge financial and psychological burden on those who have it.
To be fair, all the colleges and universities in this story are on the elite end of the spectrum. They are in the top 5 percent if not top 1 percent of higher education institutions in the United States. The speakers largely have their controversies. Dr. Rice’s actions during the Bush administration were either highly questionable to downright criminal to many people on the left including a moderate liberal like myself. 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. Ayaan Hirsi Ali has made extremely controversial statements about her native religion of Islam, statements that would please the most crusading of right-wing Islamophobes. I do not doubt her experiences growing up but they are not reflective of Muslims as a whole because there are over one billion followers of Islam in the world. It is also questionable that a Jewish institution like Brandeis would honor such a controversial speaker when Jewish-Muslim relations are very fraught and Peace Process between Israel and Palestine could be heading to thinner and thinner ice. I do not get the protests against Christine Lagarde. The students at Smith said that the IMF runs counter to what they have been taught for the past four years but this feels like a throwback to the 1990s and the early protests against globalization in Seattle.
The whole media coverage seems to allow everyone to engage in the worst stereotypes of their perceived enemies. Conservatives get to portray leftist college students as being overly sensitive, ideologically closed minded, weak and unable to give an ideological opponent a chance to speak, spoiled, entitled, and champagne socialists. Defenses of the students call out students for not understanding free speech (there is no free speech right to an honorary degree and a speaker’s fee), and generally accusing the right and somewhat more centerist liberals of hippie/student punching.
I find all these arguments to be unsatisfying because they make a person pick teams and I see more nuance. I am more sympathetic to the prostests against Rice, Birgenau, and Ali in that order. The protests against Lagarde are absolutely perplexing to me and in my mind wrong. 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. The world can not be divided into corrupt and not-corrupt, good and evil. This is how the far left and far right have things in common by seeing the world in Manichean terms.
The best takes on the campus commencement controversy belong to Amanda Hess at Slate and Michelle Goldberg in an interview for Vox (links below). Amanda Hess argued that one way that universities justify their high prices is by promising each and every student a uniquely tailored experience. People will pay lots of money for a uniquely tailored experience like people will pay thousands of dollars for a bespoke suit by the best Saville Row tailors. They will not pay lots of money to be treated like a replaceable cog without any autonomy especially at small but elite colleges like Smith and Haverford. The students feel that the money they are paying demands that their wishes be respected when it comes to inviting campus speakers and they are right in a way. We can’t decide what relationship students have to their universities and they exist in a hybrid world where they are both customers (and future donors) but also supposed to be subservient and follow rules and get mocked when they protests. We treat college students simultaneously as adults and children and this must cause some psychological confusion. They are adults in the eyes of the law in terms of their rights, responsibilities, and liabilities but when they protest and complain, they are treated like spoiled children having a temper tantrum. This does not strike me as right. You can’t have it both ways like this.
Michelle Goldberg argues that the protests are largely a manifestation of despair and leftists exercising what little power they have and where they have it. She notes like I did that there is a difference between liberals and leftists in terms of whether civil liberties like free speech should trump social justice or not. She also notes that even though we have a Democratic President and Senate, many on the left feel that they are losing battle after battle especially on the economic front. OWS fizzled to nothing but the Koch-brother funded Tea Party lives on and is seemingly pushing Republicans further to the right. Armed Cliven Bundy gets the kid gloves and college students at UC-Davis engaged in peaceful protest get brutally pepper sprayed. Right-wing Reactionaries advocate treason with impunity like they did with the Operation Spring Eagle. Occupiers get jailed for defending against a grouping cop. The one place leftists generally control is the college campus and this is the slight power they have.
I think Hess and Goldbergs arguments work in tandem. Economic recovery is still anemic and even though everyone is talking about how student loans are a major problem, no one is talking about how to lower college tuition and reduce the need for loans. Students who study the right subjects at the right universities get great job offers and everyone else needs to struggle and work in mediocre to nothing jobs for a few years or longer before finding their footing. This include students at elite colleges like Smith and Haverford that are very hard to get into but not elite enough to get you noticed or interviewed by Wall Street or Silicon Valley.
There is an increasing view that higher education is a racket for those on the top and there is nothing anyone can do about it. Yesterday, the New York Post revealed that Henry Louis Gates Jr. received a sweetheart deal on an apartment from NYU. Professor Gates teaches at Harvard but he still got a two-bedroom apartment in Manhattan for 2200 a month. The fair market value on the apartment is much higher. Meanwhile more and more university teaching positions are being done by adjuncts who barely scrape by and sometimes or often don’t scrape by at all.
Why should students take out six-figures of debt for a professor to get a sweetheart deal? A professor who doesn’t even teach at their university. Why should they take out six-figures of debt and then be lectured like children because they protested against a speaker’s politics? Especially when their degrees do not seem to have the job prospects that they once had.
I am a defender of the idea of education for the sake of education. College is not for everyone but I like the idea of a society and culture that thinks it is good for citizens to be able to spend three or four years of their lives taking classes on what interests them from Plato to Theatre to Biology to Religion to Literature and beyond. A well-educated society benefits everyone and everyone should benefit. This cannot be done by forcing everyone to take out massive debt though. I even like the idea of commencement speeches. My commencement speaker was Tony Kushner. This was especially neat because my senior project in Drama that year involved working on a production of Angels in America. But I can understand why students who are going into serious debt would be upset about their commencement speaker being someone they disagreed with. I would be upset if Vassar choose Rick Warren or Thomas Kincade as the commencement speaker during my senior year as examples.