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OpEdge: When Commencement Speakers Chicken Out

Marc Jampole
May 15, 2014
by Marc Jampole concered-college-gradAcross the country, colleges are holding graduation ceremonies for hundreds of thousands of graduates. But what used to be called the graduation season is rapidly gaining a new name: commencement speaker cancellation season. This year, in particular, there seems to be a large number of high profile commencement speakers who have backed out or have been disinvited after campus protests. Former Bush II Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was forced out as Rutgers’ commencement speaker. International Monetary Fund (IMF) chief Christine Lagarde withdrew from speaking at Smith College after protests. Former University of California-Berkeley Chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau withdrew from speaking at Haverford after protesters wanted him to apologize for having campus police use batons against Occupy protesters. Brandeis University reversed its decision to award Islamic feminist Ayaan Hirsi Ali an honorary degree, after previously announcing it would do so, after protests by rightwing Moslems over her criticism of their religion. Even Michelle Obama changed her mind about going to a Kansas high school graduation after rightwingers protested. In three of these cases, progressive protesters forced out conservative speakers. In the two other examples, religious radicals forced out moderates who they mistakenly labeled as extremists. Taken together, these commencement speaker cancellations involve a series of laudable and not-so-laudable actions. In all examples, we should admire the protesters for exercising their right to make their opinions known. But we should be disappointed in and ashamed of the institutions and the prominent individuals who backed down. Protests would have made for messy commencements, which are usually drawn-out affairs that involve a lot of sophisticated choreography to move thousands of graduates on to and off the stage in a short amount of time. So what? Life is messy and democracy is messy. By backing down or backing out, the individuals and institutions demonstrated a lack of respect for public discourse. While we can admire organizations such as the New York Public Library that back down when it turns out their plans are not in the public’s best interests, giving a speaker a platform is never an occasion for backing down. Instead, the institutions could expand the venue — for example, getting another speaker to balance the controversial speaker, or creating a special forum to discuss the controversies during commencement week. The colleges could even give the protesters ten minutes at the ceremonies to make their points. To the degree that the speakers themselves made the decision to withdraw, they should be ashamed of themselves. They took the actions that made them controversial. They should own what they did or repudiate it. They should not run away from a spotlight that they themselves created. For some of the educational institutions in question, backing down from the original plan marks their second mistake. Their first was to invite the speaker in the first place. Let’s start with Birgeneau: To invite an obscure university administrator known for one action only is an open endorsement of that action. Haverford officials were stating that they thought it was right to beat up peaceful Occupy protesters. No wonder faculty and staff mobilized against the decision to ask Birgeneau to speak. The case of Condoleezza is also easy: Commencement speakers are supposed to send graduates off on the journey that will be the rest of their lives with hopeful advice that spurs their enthusiasms and aspirations. The commencement speaker thus carries a certain moral authority. How can anyone who was associated with the decision to create a worldwide network of torture facilities be considered a moral authority? Rice, Cheney, Bush II, Rumsfeld, John Yoo, David Addington, and anyone else who was involved in deciding to pursue torture as an instrument of war should be American pariahs. No university invited Joseph McCarthy or Roy Cohn to speak after their disgrace, and none should invite these international criminals, either. Some would argue that Christine Lagarde is also a criminal by virtue of her activities as head of the IMF. I would agree that many IMF actions have hurt people while protecting the interests of banks. It’s a political argument between left and right. Lagarde’s politics do not in and of themselves forfeit her the moral right to be a commencement speaker, as the actions of Condoleezza Rice and Robert Birgeneau do. The case of Brandeis University is the trickiest. On the surface, there is nothing morally objectionable in Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s actions and statements. She has fought for years against female genital mutilation and formed an organization, the AHA Foundation, whose mission is to work “to protect and reinforce the basic rights and freedoms of women and girls, including security and control of their own bodies, access to an education, the ability to work outside the home and control their own income, freedom of expression and association, and the myriad other basic civil rights defined under the laws of Western democracies and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” The fact that she is a fellow of the ultra-conservative American Enterprise Institute is troubling, but I can see why any mainstream organization would want to demonstrate its commitment to human rights by awarding Ali an honorary degree. Except that Brandeis is not any mainstream organization. It is a Jewish organization giving an award to a woman who is disrupting Islam. Yes, we should support her disruptions, just as we support the disruptions that pro-choice and supporters of LGBT marriage make to the Christian and Catholic religious institutions and belief. But when Brandeis does it, it carries stark and obvious symbolism, because it’s as if a Jewish organization is taunting Islamists, purposely getting their goat. It plays into the myths that many rightwing Moslems have about Jews. Someone at Brandeis — actually, a lot of people — must have known that giving an honorary degree to Ali would piss off the Islamic rightwing, which makes the withdrawal of the degree particularly obnoxious and cowardly. If you are going to stir the pot, don’t wimp out, which is what Brandeis has done. Marc Jampole, a member of our editorial board, is the author of Music from Words (Bellday Books, 2007), a poetry collection. He is a public relations executive and former television news reporter who blogs regularly at and at his blog, OpEdge.