The Case for Protesting Your Commencement Speaker

These students aren’t silencing debate. They’re creating it.

DALLAS - NOVEMBER 16: Former Secretary of State Condolezza Rice addresses the audience during the George W. Bush Presidential Center groundbreaking ceremony on November 16, 2010 in Dallas, Texas. The George W. Bush Presidential Center is a state-of-the-art complex that will include former President George W. Bush's presidential library and museum, the George W. Bush Policy Institute, and the offices of the George W. Bush Foundation. 
National Journal
Lucia Graves
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Lucia Graves
May 15, 2014, 10:27 a.m.

This week col­lege stu­dents in­censed the In­ter­net by hav­ing the au­da­city to pub­licly op­pose their com­mence­ment speak­ers. The list of spurned speak­ers in­cludes former Sec­ret­ary of State Con­doleezza Rice, the head of the In­ter­na­tion­al Mon­et­ary Fund, and the ex-chan­cel­lor of the Uni­versity of Cali­for­nia (Berke­ley).

The Daily Beast framed the con­ver­sa­tion thusly: “The oh-so-fra­gile class of 2014 needs to STFU and listen to some new ideas.” The Week called it an ex­ample of “the lazy mor­al­ism of lib­er­al col­lege polit­ics.” And Vox pegged it as part of a lar­ger de­bate about “the ree­m­er­gence of an ‘anti-lib­er­al left’ that val­ues so­cial justice more than free speech and in­quiry.”

Ac­tu­ally those out­lets, and many oth­ers, have got it back­wards. These speak­ers wer­en’t op­posed on a whim. Rather stu­dents, and in some cases fac­ulty, felt the in­vit­ees had spe­cif­ic as­pects of their re­cords to an­swer for, and a rote com­mence­ment speech sel­dom brings ser­i­ous polit­ic­al de­bate.

At Rut­gers Uni­versity, stu­dents and fac­ulty ob­jec­ted to Rice’s in­volve­ment in the Ir­aq War. As na­tion­al se­cur­ity ad­viser in the George W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion, Rice was a big pro­ponent of the 2003 in­va­sion and, for any­one who needs a re­fresh­er, penned an ed­it­or­i­al in The New York Times en­titled “Why We Know Ir­aq Is Ly­ing” about its weapons of mass de­struc­tion.

Per­haps then it’s un­der­stand­able why, look­ing back at this, some at Rut­gers were un­com­fort­able hon­or­ing her leg­acy at their col­lege com­mence­ment.

Yet The Week dis­missed any ob­jec­tion as “a long­ing to sim­pli­fy the world, to wish away our con­flicts and deny the need to get one’s hands dirty.” Dis­sent was framed as the in­ev­it­able mis­cal­cu­la­tion of kids who haven’t “learned their les­son” and are “too young to have seen the need to put away their child­ish things.”

The Ir­aq War res­ul­ted in more than 110,000 vi­ol­ent deaths. What child­ish things bey­ond their ideal­ism must these stu­dents put away?

At Haver­ford Col­lege stu­dents and fac­ulty had ques­tions for a former Uni­versity of Cali­for­nia chan­cel­lor about the treat­ment of Oc­cupy pro­test­ers in the fall of 2011. Haver­ford was foun­ded in 1833 to en­sure an edu­ca­tion groun­ded in Quaker val­ues, and the Quaker in­flu­ence on cam­pus is still strong. If stu­dents there didn’t have any ques­tions about the use of force on peace­ful stu­dent pro­test­ers, they wouldn’t be liv­ing up to their mis­sion.

And at Smith, stu­dents ob­jec­ted to re­ceiv­ing their edu­ca­tion cap­stone speech from Christine Lagarde, chief of the IMF, char­ging that the or­gan­iz­a­tion, in provid­ing eco­nom­ic aid to poor na­tions, has im­posed con­di­tions that fa­vor West­ern na­tions and strengthen op­press­ive re­gimes. It’s an in­ter­est­ing, some­what com­plic­ated cri­ti­cism, and Lagarde is in a po­s­i­tion to of­fer up in­tel­li­gent an­swers. In­stead, she with­drew from the ce­re­mony so as not to dis­tract from the cel­eb­ra­tion.

Lagarde’s re­sponse was sim­il­ar to Rice’s when she op­ted to back out of her com­mence­ment en­gage­ment at Rut­gers. “Rut­gers’ in­vit­a­tion to me to speak has be­come a dis­trac­tion for the uni­versity com­munity at this very spe­cial time,” Rice ex­plained.

It’s un­der­stand­able if speak­ers want to spare them­selves the dis­com­fort of en­ga­ging with crit­ics, but it’s also a good re­mind­er of just how little in­terest they have in spark­ing pro­voc­at­ive polit­ic­al de­bate. And it’s an­oth­er reas­on why The Daily Beast, in writ­ing lines like, “God for­bid these del­ic­ate stu­dents should be ex­posed to an idea or an or­gan­iz­a­tion with which they dis­agree,” is miss­ing the point.

These speak­ers are not be­ing si­lenced. They de­cided to with­draw when it looked like the at­ten­tion they would be re­ceiv­ing would not be en­tirely flat­ter­ing. Rather than have a con­ver­sa­tion about it, they fled.

It’s also part of what makes Vox‘s fram­ing of the is­sue so off base. “When con­ser­vat­ives are back in power … the left will re­dis­cov­er the im­port­ance of pro­tect­ing un­pop­u­lar opin­ions,” Michelle Gold­berg, a journ­al­ist with The Na­tion, tells Vox.

It’s an in­ter­est­ing con­ver­sa­tion, but it has little to do with the top­ic of protest­ing com­mence­ment speak­ers. These speak­ers are not some poor op­pressed minor­ity just try­ing to of­fer col­leges stu­dents a thought-pro­vok­ing ar­gu­ment or dif­fer­ent polit­ic­al out­look. Rather they are some of the most power­ful people in the free world who have come to col­lect laurels and of­fer up plat­it­udes about suc­cess and nav­ig­at­ing life after col­lege. They are not tak­ing ques­tions. Com­mence­ment lec­tures are a one-way, of­ten dull street.

The Vox piece even­tu­ally ac­know­ledges that protests against com­mence­ment speak­ers are not really a good ex­ample of the so-called “anti-lib­er­al left” that Gold­berg has writ­ten about. But the rev­el­a­tion is bur­ied more than 1,000 words in.

Slate, in a column en­titled “Elite Col­lege Stu­dents Protest Their Elite Com­mence­ment Speak­ers,” sug­gests these stu­dents are simply overly en­titled be­cause they pur­portedly want their com­mence­ments to be both high in pro­file and rich in per­son­al mean­ing. Where ex­actly is the evid­ence that the stu­dents who ob­ject to the polit­ic­al his­tor­ies of these people are really just hold­ing their breath un­til Ry­an Gos­ling ap­pears? They have sub­stant­ive com­plaints that de­serve an­swers and air­space. Also, com­par­ing the elite status of someone like Con­doleezza Rice to a ran­dom pro­test­er at Rut­gers is just silly.

The greatest irony of all is that these stu­dent pro­test­ers whom the in­ter­net has so loudly de­cried have already won. These stor­ies just cre­ated in­fin­itely more de­bate and breadth of opin­ion than simply rolling over and listen­ing to one more com­mence­ment speak­er of­fer up more of the same about how if you just put your head down, sheep­ishly fol­low the rules, and don’t ques­tion the con­ven­tion­al wis­dom of power­ful people, your life will come out totally fine. And ut­terly un­in­ter­est­ing.

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