Commencement Speaker Tradition Questioned as Protests Endure

The tradition of college commencement speeches is coming under question after student and faculty opposition led three prominent public figures to withdraw as speakers in the past 10 days.

“Perhaps we should just discontinue the practice of having commencement speakers completely,” said Lawrence Bacow, who served as president of Tufts University from 2001 to 2011. “Too many students expect just to be entertained. They judge the quality of their commencement by the celebrity of their speaker.”

Haverford College said today that former University of California at Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau backed out of giving its May 18 commencement address. Yesterday, International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde withdrew as the speaker this weekend at Smith College amid student and faculty protests over IMF policies. On May 3, former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pulled out from Rutgers University’s May 18 ceremony after students and faculty complained about her position on the Gulf War when she served under President George W. Bush.

Birgeneau withdrew after Haverford students and faculty sent him a letter expressing concern over his role when Berkeley campus police used force to break up a November 2011 protest.

‘What Cost?’

The Internet and social media have given activists a hand in mobilizing support for their causes. An online petition and discussion group helped lead the drive to replace Lagarde at Northampton, Massachusetts-based Smith, using complaints that have formed the basis of protests against the IMF since the Asian financial crisis more than a decade ago.

“Those who objected will be satisfied that their activism has had a desired effect. But at what cost to Smith College?” Smith’s President Kathleen McCartney said about Lagarde’s decision in a letter yesterday to the college community.

Lagarde, a regular proponent of women’s rights, gave the commencement address two years ago at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. Rice spoke at Southern Methodist University’s graduation in Dallas in 2012.

“You don’t have to agree with a speaker to learn from them,” Bacow said. “Both Rice and Lagarde are distinguished public servants. I would have been proud to have either of them give the commencement speech at Tufts,” he said earlier today, before Birgeneau’s withdrawal from Haverford was disclosed.

Closed Process

Speakers would trigger less controversy if faculty and students are involved in the process to select them, said Francois Cornilliat, a professor of French at New Brunswick, New Jersey-based Rutgers who helped organize the faculty protest against Rice. Rutgers decision to invite her was “autocratic and secret” and wasn’t about free speech, he said.

“A commencement speech and an honorary degree amounts an endorsement of the person that is honored in this way,” Cornilliat said. “We strongly felt that Rutgers should not honor Dr. Rice.”

The process for selecting commencement speakers and honorary degree recipients follows procedures that have been in place more than a decade, according to a Rutgers statement today. Recommendations come from a Board of Governors committee composed of governors, trustees and other members of the Rutgers community.

“Dr. Rice’s name was selected through this process and unanimously approved by the Rutgers Board of Governors on Feb. 4,” the university said.

Not Endorsement

Smith’s McCartney, who said differing views should be heard and debated with respect, sees it differently.

“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,” McCartney wrote. “Such a test would preclude virtually anyone in public office or position of influence.”

Students rightfully desire speakers they are comfortable with, though educators should also seek guests who will challenge the graduates intellectually and ethically, said Henry Reichman, who chairs a committee on academic freedom and tenure with the American Association of University Professors.

“There is, of course, a danger that protests like those at Smith and Rutgers might lead some institutions to seek only the blandest and least controversial figures,” Reichman said in an e-mail. “I am more encouraged that protesting students are engaged and willing to advocate their own views and not just passively accept choices that may well have been imposed by others.”

Nine Requests

In the case of Birgeneau, Haverford students and faculty asked him to agree to nine requests, including supporting reparations for the victims of the November 2011 protest at Berkeley, stating that he played an instrumental role in that police action and writing an open letter to Haverford students about what he learned from that event.

“I have never and will never respond to lists of demands,” Birgeneau said in a letter in response that was posted on the Haverford student newspaper website. “Second, as a long time civil rights activist and firm supporter of non-violence, I do not respond to untruthful, violent verbal attacks.”

Bacow and Rudolph Bell, a history professor at Rutgers who also helped lead the faculty protest, both suggested candidates with connections to the institution. Bacow recommended an honored faculty member and Bell a distinguished alumnus.

“Big, public names are controversial,” Bell said.

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