Stop protesting commencement speakers

Courtesy of Flickr
Courtesy of Flickr

Commencement season is always a heady time of year, filled with the buoyant spirits of students ready to take flight in the big blue world. Our friends and family come to congratulate us on our four-plus years of hard work and wish us the best for our post-college endeavors. We can spend all our dining dollars buying out every last scrap of food at Scotty’s in an exuberant celebration of victory. We walk up to the podium, seize our degree, and with it, we seize our destiny.

We deserve to be happy: Our entire lives have been building up to this moment so far. And after all of the late nights, cram sessions and excessive caffeine intake, we’ve succeeded. When we graduate from college, we do so with pride because we are no longer fledglings. We are able to say, with a degree to back us up, that we have learned the skills we need to succeed in life: in-depth knowledge of the world around us, open-mindedness to other perspectives and the ability to think critically in order to evaluate ideas for our own. To obtain these skills is, after all, the whole point of college.

The commencement, the ultimate encapsulation of the finality of the college experience, should reflect that faith in the open exchange of beliefs. But then a funny thing happened — it stopped.

Former UC Berkeley chancellor Robert Birgeneau withdrew from giving a speech at Haverford College. Christine Lagarde, the first female head of the International Monetary Fund, similarly passed from her speech at Smith College. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who has been involved in education before, serving as Stanford’s provost, cancelled her commencement speech at Rutgers.

The reason? Each of them did something somewhere in their career that some students found objectionable. For Rice, it was her association with the Iraq War that did her in, with students deciding that it warranted one of the largest sit-ins occurring in Rutgers history. There was nothing wrong with Lagarde herself, who shattered several glass ceilings and is a staunch supporter of women’s rights, but she served for the International Monetary Fund, an organization protesters called “directly against Smith’s values to stand in unity with equality for all women, regardless of race, ethnicity or class.” And outcry from students forced Birgeneau to withdraw due to his initial expressions of support for the police during the Occupy protests, even though he quickly reversed course after the true levels of brutality became apparent, apologizing and taking full responsibility.

This year isn’t an anomaly — cancellations prompted by student protest have always occurred, and as long as free speech is protected, will always occur. But it wasn’t always so frequent either. According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, the number of disinvitation incidents, defined as when students issued a large-scale protest to a commencement speaker, quintupled from 2000 to 2013, with over 30 such incidents occurring in 2013 alone. Last year, one high-ranking government official was awkwardly forced to decline his invitation from his alma mater, Swarthmore College.

While it is certainly well within students’ power and rights to protest speakers they find objectionable, this seems to be a wider net than usual. Censure is a powerful tool, but by wielding it overenthusiastically, we risk lumping those whose views we disagree with alongside the truly odious. We’re putting Birgeneau, the person who oversaw Berkeley’s granting of financial aid to undocumented immigrants and who has been praised as an advocate for LGBT rights, in the same category as people who “accidentally” called a transgender doctor ”shim” (a combination of “she” and “him”), or who assert that ”violence is inherent in Islam.” There is a point where speech becomes hateful and students have an obligation to protest, but by most measures Birgeneau doesn’t cross that line.

Another disconcerting factor is the fact that the speakers have gotten predominantly liberal over the past decade. In a comparison of the speakers at the top 30 universities and liberal arts colleges between now and a decade ago, the number of conservative speakers dropped precipitously. In fact, in the past two years, not a single speaker at these universities was clearly aligned with the Republican Party; in the same timeframe, 25 Democrats spoke.

A lot of the cancellations flew under the radar simply because President Barack Obama’s decision to give the commencement address at UC Irvine sucked up all the oxygen in the room. Although he touched on a lot of universally uplifting themes, it’s also true that his speech was frequently political, calling congressional Republicans out for their intransigence and unwillingness to tackle issues like gun safety and climate change. It’s fair to say that there were probably members of UC Irvine’s graduating class who disagreed with the President on a fair number of issues. But instead of whining about how Obama was turning the United States into a communist state and taking away our freedom, they listened to what he had to say. Maybe they came away disagreeing with him, or maybe they learned something new. Either way, at the end of the day, they heard a different perspective and new ideas. And in so doing, they evaluated different beliefs and had a conversation, even if it was only with themselves.

Isn’t that the reason we go to university in the first place — to learn about different perspectives and challenge our own beliefs? Colleges are founded on the exchange of ideas and information. If we refuse speakers simply because of the ideas they are expressing, we lose a valuable opportunity for dialogue and learning, and we deny the value of listening to other points of view. Colleges should be havens of support for debate and conversation, not fortresses where people encase themselves in the protective reaffirmation of their own opinions. Not to mention it only adds to the negative perception of universities as closed-minded ivory towers of political correctness.

The right of free speech isn’t reserved only for people we agree with. The precise reason free speech is important is that it protects the rights of those we disagree with. When these speakers cancel, a valuable opportunity for dialogue about the disagreements we have with one another is lost. If you believe your views are right, come prepared to the debate table and prove it.

Benjamin Franklin once said that people who sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither. Let’s not sacrifice our commitment to hearing others out for security in our beliefs. Students are smart enough and ready enough to have that debate — our long nights of study, toil and eventual graduations are proof enough of that.

 

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