It's speech season on campus — and it's notable for ones not given [Commentary]

It's about time somebody told undergrads how rude they're being to prospective commencement speakers

May 21, 2014|Susan Reimer

It is the season for graduations and graduation speeches, most of which dissolve into the sunshine, remembered by no one, but particularly not the happy graduates.

That is changing. The season is now memorable for the speeches that are not given, the speakers having been driven off by student activists.

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice withdrew from her scheduled appearance at Rutgers after students protested her acquiescence to President George W. Bush during the war in Iraq.

This is the same Rutgers that paid "Jersey Shore" star Snooki $32,000 to speak in 2011.

International Monetary Fund Director Christine Lagarde withdrew from her scheduled commencement speech at Smith College in the face of a student petition that accused the IMF of strengthening the "imperialist and patriarchal systems that oppress and abuse women worldwide."

Brandeis University rescinded an honorary degree offer to African writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who had fled the oppression of her Muslim culture, including genital mutilation and forced marriage, after students and faculty decried her for "speaking out against Islam."

Last year, former New York City top cop Ray Kelly was shouted down by students at Brown, apparently because of the tactics he used against Occupy Wall Street protesters.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which monitors free speech issues on campuses, says that this is happening more often as students flex their muscles with the help of social media.

Or show their lack of manners, depending on your point of view.

So, when the demands of students at Haverford College, a small Quaker liberal arts school outside of Philadelphia, caused their speaker to withdraw, the man's replacement, former Princeton University President William Bowen, decided to scold them.

Haverford graduates were initially scheduled to hear from former University of California, Berkeley chancellor Robert Birgeneau, who had notably guided the country's first public university to offer comprehensive financial aid to students in the country illegally.

But also during his tenure, police had used batons on students protesting the college's tuition hikes. So, Haverford students sent him a letter saying he would not be welcome to speak unless he agreed to a list of nine demands, including an apology and restitution for the Occupy Cal students who were abused by police.

He declined and withdrew as commencement speaker.

So Mr. Bowen, as he tells Time magazine, called the president of Haverford and asked if he could speak at commencement instead. He had something he wanted to tell the students, and on Sunday, he did.

He called them "arrogant" and "immature." He said their protest was sad and troubling and that he regarded the outcome not as a victory for students but "a defeat, pure and simple, for Haverford — no victory for anyone who believes, as I think most of us do, in both openness to many points of view and mutual respect."

And he was just getting started.

He talked about how his own Princeton students had shown restraint when George Shultz, who had been in President Nixon's cabinet during the Vietnam War, had — courageously in Mr. Bowen's estimation — arrived to receive an honorary degree. Some students and some faculty rose and turned their backs, but Secretary Shultz was allowed to speak.

"You don't issue a preemptory set of demands that really read like an indictment delivered by a self-selected jury absent counter argument," he told Time, repeating in part his chastising of the students. "You just don't do that."

It also "wasn't right that the broader academic community be silent about this," Mr. Bowen told Time. So he volunteered to speak out.

He went on to tell the news magazine that social media makes it easy for "a few voices to get a lot of bandwidth." And he said he believed that this rejection of commencement speakers was spreading like a "contagion," and that's why so many in academia urged him to speak out.

He could, he said, because as president of Princeton during the 1970s and 1980s, he been through it all. Now, he said, he has "the wonderful luxury of saying what I believe.

"I have learned over many years through thick and thin to say what I believe is the right thing to say and let the aftermath be the aftermath."

I am sure the students at Haverford and Rutgers and Smith and Brandeis believe they are doing the same thing — saying what they believe is the right thing to say.

But it is Mr. Bowen's gift of his many years that allows him to point out to them that, in fact, they are being rude.

Susan Reimer's column appears on Sundays and Thursdays. She can be reached at sreimer@baltsun.com and @SusanReimer on Twitter.com


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