the commencement speaker controversies

IMF chief Christine Lagarde, former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Colorado state Sen. Michael Johnston (D) are among the commencement speakers who have drawn objections from students this year. Several have withdrawn from speaking or been disinvited in the face of such criticism.

Compared to the people who decry student bigotry in these cases, I take a relatively complex, three-part view.

First, protesting a commencement speaker is not a violation of free speech; it is an act of free speech. Joel Whitney argues that point well in The New Republic. A commencement podium is not an open forum like Hyde Park Corner or a public access cable channel. It is allocated as a high honor to one person whom the institution explicitly endorses. Students may contest that endorsement.

For example, in announcing the choice of Johnston to be the Harvard Ed. School’s speaker, the dean said, “As a teacher, principal, and entrepreneur, Mike’s leadership has made a real difference in the lives of countless students.” (I can’t resist noting that the previous sentence contains a dangling modifier.) Dean Ryan continued, “As a legislator in the Colorado State Senate, [Johnston] is a nationally recognized advocate for school finance reform, fair teacher evaluations, and education equity. I believe that our community will be inspired, as I have been, by his passion and his willingness to find solutions to notoriously difficult challenges in education.”

That was a substantive statement and a prediction. The dean stated that the invitee was great and the whole community would be inspired by him. I have no objection to Sen. Johnston, but students are entitled to contest these claims.

Smith President Kathleen McCartney is right that “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.” But an invitation to speak at a commencement is a claim that the invitee is excellent in some respect, and the institution should expect objections if members of the community are known to disagree.

Second, when students protest a commencement speaker, neither the invitee nor the institution should back down. To withdraw in the face of criticism is to frustrate free speech. After Smith College invitee Lagarde, and some students objected, the IMF chief withdrew, saying, “In the last few days, … it has become evident that a number of students and faculty members would not welcome me as a commencement speaker. I respect their views, and I understand the vital importance of academic freedom. However, to preserve the celebratory spirit of commencement day, I believe it is best to withdraw my participation.”

If a commencement is just a celebratory occasion, spoiled by controversy as easily as a picnic by rain, then colleges should invite completely uncontroversial figures to share pabulum from the podium. If a commencement is an opportunity for learning, then it will draw dissent, and both the institution and the speaker should expect that. If they drop the speaker to avoid controversy, they don’t care about free speech.

Third, being exposed to views you disagree with is valuable. It’s educational and challenging. It is most valuable when the views are forcefully expressed by someone who genuinely holds them. Thus liberal students may benefit from hearing Lagarde, Rice, Ali, and Johnston, even if they don’t enjoy these talks all that much on their graduation day. There is a valid principle implied in the claim that these speakers have “free speech,” even if it’s wrongly interpreted to mean that they have some kind of individual right to give a commencement address. (If we have such a right, I’m cashing mine in and speaking next year at the University of Hawaii). “Free speech” doesn’t mean a right to give a commencement address, but it is shorthand for the value of exposure to challenging views.

Therefore, I don’t think students should express their objections in this form: “We despise the invitee and demand that she not speak here at all.” Instead, I think they should say, “We despise the views of the invitee for the following reasons and plan to make our arguments known during commencement.” That reflects an embrace of free speech rather than a fear of it. One model is the critical letter that Catholic University professors wrote to John Boehner after he was invited to speak there. They first offered a strong, substantive, moral critique:

Mr. Speaker, your voting record is at variance from one of the Church’s most ancient moral teachings. From the apostles to the present, the Magisterium of the Church has insisted that those in power are morally obliged to preference the needs of the poor. Your record in support of legislation to address the desperate needs of the poor is among the worst in Congress. This fundamental concern should have great urgency for Catholic policy makers. Yet, even now, you work in opposition to it.

That was actually a devastating rebuke. But the professors went on to welcome him to campus and held out hope that the interchange might influence him:

We congratulate you on the occasion of your commencement address to The Catholic University of America. It is good for Catholic universities to host and engage the thoughts of powerful public figures, even Catholics such as yourself who fail to recognize (whether out of a lack of awareness or dissent) important aspects of Catholic teaching. We write in the hope that this visit will reawaken your familiarity with the teachings of your Church on matters of faith and morals as they relate to governance.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that every group of angry students must use exactly this model, but it is one worth considering. And then they should get their money’s worth on graduation day by engaging an interesting speaker, actively and critically.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.