Commencement Speakers Unbowed by Student Arrows and Slings

Robert Birgeneau, the former chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley, would like you to know he’s still available for commencement speeches.

Birgeneau withdrew from Haverford College’s graduation last week after he became a target of student and faculty objections, one of the latest planned keynotes derailed this year, including those by Condoleezza Rice at Rutgers University and Christine Lagarde at Smith College. The cancellations sparked a reprimand from a different Haverford speaker, who used the May 18 ceremony to call protesters there “arrogant” and “immature.”

“In my career at Berkeley I’ve been viciously attacked by Ward Connerly, Rush Limbaugh and now students from the small Quaker college, Haverford,” Birgeneau said in a phone interview, referring to tussles with a former UC regent and the conservative radio show host. “Commencements are generally joyous occasions and I like speaking at them.”

The withdrawals show how far the pendulum has swung on campuses, where students had to battle with administrators to get controversial speakers. In the 1960s, when such graduation orators grew in popularity, it was the faculty that used to thwart objectionable figures, said Robert Walker, chief executive officer of the American Program Bureau.

“Things have changed dramatically,” said Walker, who founded his Newton, Massachusetts-based company in the early 1960s and has represented public figures from Abbie Hoffman to Mikhail Gorbachev and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. “The students today have much more of a say than they did in the ’60s.”

Vetting Speakers

Walker, who arranged about 50 commencement speeches this year, said the high-profile cancellations have done little to dissuade his clients from stepping on college podiums.

The frequency of protests over speakers this commencement season may reflect how easy it is for students to mount campaigns against them with the aid of the Internet, said Sheldon Senek, executive vice president of Eagles Talent Speakers Bureau in South Orange, New Jersey. That raises the pressure on organizers to fully vet their invitees and consider the audience in determining a match, he said.

“I hate to think there are land mines as if it’s more dangerous, but you have social media, you have more awareness about disagreements,” Senek said. “You have to go through all the different scenarios. It’s different from speaker to speaker.”

Speaking Fees

Larger schools might pay as much as $200,000 for a high-profile speaker while honorariums at smaller schools can run as low as $1,000 depending on the personality, Walker said. More elite universities will often secure a speaker through its alumni or trustee network while lesser-known schools are more dependent on speaker bureaus.

Speakers typically aren’t paid if they cancel or if their invitations are rescinded, according to Walker. He said the terms are usually detailed in the speaker contracts.

Rice, the former U.S. Secretary of State, pulled out from Rutgers’s ceremony earlier this month after complaints about her position on the Gulf War when she served under President George W. Bush. Her replacement, former New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean, declined the $35,000 speaker’s fee and asked that it be used to set up a scholarship fund, Rutgers said on its website.

Chris Mills, a spokesman for Haverford, said the college doesn’t pay its commencement speakers.

‘Arrogant Inclinations’

William Bowen, a former president of Princeton University who gave an address to Haverford last weekend, said students at the liberal arts college outside Philadelphia should have encouraged Birgeneau to “come and engage in a genuine discussion” rather than “respond to an indictment that a self-chosen jury had reached without hearing counter-arguments.” He said some of the protesters had “immature, and, yes, arrogant inclinations.”

In a telephone interview, Bowen said that the opposition was “foolishness,” and that he was encouraged by others in academia to rebuke the students. The disrespect shown to Birgeneau stands in contrast to other instances where campus protesters have shown their displeasure without disruption, showing that there can be disagreements with dialogue, he said.

“If you’re objective was to talk with someone about his handling of student unrest, you would try to find a way to encourage him to come and talk to you, not send him a list of demands that were insulting,” Bowen said.

Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, withdrew as speaker at Smith College amid protests over IMF policies. She was replaced by Ruth Simmons, former president of both Brown University and Smith.

Openness, Civility

At Harvard University, the dean of the Graduate School of Education rejected a request by some students and faculty members to rescind an invitation to Michael Johnston, a state senator in Colorado, who some found objectionable because of his stance on education reform.

The school is open to making the process for selecting future speakers more formal and to include students, according to a May 19 letter to the education school’s community from James Ryan, dean of the school.

The value of openness and civility needs to be restored at colleges, Bowen said.

“Both of these are essential things to have on a campus,” he said.

(A previous version of the story was corrected because former New Jersey Governor Tom Kean was misidentified.)

(Updates to add Bowen’s comment in last paragraph.)
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