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May 23, 2014 1:26 PM The Commencement Speaker Problem

By Daniel Luzer

It’s now commencement season, the time of year when college students from across America congregate in hot auditoriums to receive their diplomas and listen to some forgettable bigwig give a banal and forgettable speech about realizing your dreams or giving back or something. But this year, some students have apparently decided to liven up the festivities through protest.

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was scheduled to speaker at Rutgers and then students protested the selection, given her role in the war in Iraq. International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde was to give the commencement address at Smith. Then students protested the IMF’s role in “strengthening of imperialist and patriarchal systems that oppress and abuse women worldwide.” Neither of them will give the commencement addresses anymore.

This leads some critics of the university system to suggest this represents some leftist intolerance of ideas. As Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, put it in an article in the Huffington Post:

After having watched disinvitation season for so many years now, it certainly seems to me that the push to get speakers disinvited is becoming more common, and the likelihood of those pushes succeeding is increasing. This isn’t just a hunch; I have been maintaining a growing list of about 120 speaker controversies over recent years, and it is certainly not exhaustive. It also includes numerous high-profile dis-invitations, or decisions by speakers to withdraw under pressure, such as Ben Carson, Geraldo Rivera, Robert Zoellick, Ann Coulter, Ben Stein, Meg Whitman, and James Franco, just to name a few.

He worries that,

students are learning to think like censors by asking themselves questions like “How can I stop this speaker I dislike from speaking here?” rather than “How do I learn as much as I can from engaging with someone I disagree with so fundamentally?”

As Robert Shibley put it in the in the National Review, this commencement speaker controversy is problematic because “the ‘marketplace of ideas’ must be open to all the intellectual products available.”

What’s puzzling about this is that there has been very little actual disinvitation. Both Rice and Lagarde accepted the invitations, heard of the student protests, and then decided they didn’t want to be the speakers anymore.

graduation

These people weren’t “disinvited.” This is like what happens if your buddy is getting married and you tell him you’re excited to attend and then you email him back to say sorry, you’re got other plans because you found out your ex-girlfriend is going to be there. You weren’t disinvited; you just wussed out.

The decisions of Rice and Lagarde are understandable, but it doesn’t mean colleges are opposed to diversity of thought. The best way to present students with controversial ideas is to show up at the damn graduation and express those ideas.

There’s supposed to be conflict; that’s what diversity of opinion results in. The protest is part of the exchange of ideas. It’s not the university’s fault if their guest speakers aren’t willing to take part.

Now, the commencement speech isn’t, in general, a time for real debate. Indeed, it’s highly unlikely that either Rice or Lagrande wouldn’t have introduced any terribly contentious ideas if they had decided to attend.

But inviting unpopular people to speak is hard. That’s what happens when public figures who hold provocative ideas (or who are responsible for unpopular things like a disastrous war) appear at colleges. If colleges are really, really want these people to speak they have to be prepared for protests and, say, run the commencement by giving a special priority to safety.

It’s a hard thing to do, but they’re not suppressing academic freedom because their speakers don’t want to come speak. Indeed, the only way to make it more attractive for the visitors would be to crack down on the protesters and, well, suppress academic freedom.

Admittedly, some of these protests are rather stupid. Ben Stein was dissuaded from serving (again, not disinvited; he said no) as the commencement speaker at the University of Vermont in 2009 because students objected that he was a proponent of intelligent design, the idea that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by a higher power.

Stein is probably not an actual creationist; he merely made a film about how intelligent design advocates are persecuted in academic settings. The belief that there may have been some higher power out there who set things in motion in some way is more or less the same vague belief of most educated religious people, and many actual scientists. Stein said the episode was “laughable” and “pathetic” and called UVM’s response to the protests “chicken shit.”

College students protest everything. Students are supposed to protest. Facilitating academic freedom means dealing the possibility of protest. But this is not “disinvitation” season. These people aren’t disinvited; they’re backing out of invitations they already accepted, because they’re scared of student protests and want to avoid controversy. [Image via]

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer

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