The springtime ritual of campus crusades against commencement speakers is less about disregard for free speech and more about the sense that graduation is about the graduates and the graduates only.
OK, it’s kind of about free speech. We still have too many people who think listening to those they disagree with equates to an endorsement, who think it is permissible to use their free speech to drown out the free speech of others. It becomes more noticeable — or more disturbing — in the college setting because we thought education was about open discourse.
Each graduation season a commencement speaker or 10 is met with protests. These objections sometimes occur during the event but mostly happen beforehand in hopes of forcing a withdrawal of the invitation or a decision by the speaker to back out.
Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice decided against speaking at Rutgers University’s commencement held earlier this month. Rice said she didn’t want to distract from the event after some students and faculty objected because of her association with the Iraq War.
At Haverford College in Pennsylvania, protesters succeeded in getting former University of California Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau to back out of delivering the speech for the graduation. His offense was being chancellor when police put down a 2011 demonstration on campus.
Replacement speaker William Bowen, a former Princeton president, scolded the student protesters, calling them “immature and arrogant.” “If you expect to agree with commencement speakers on everything, then who will you get to speak?” Bowen said he asked, according to a post-speech interview with The Wall Street Journal. “Someone totally boring?”
While commencement protests more often come from the political left, the right can be as intolerant of hearing views it opposes or even from someone who holds those views. President Barack Obama followed through with his speech at the Notre Dame graduation in 2009 despite protests against his support for women’s right to choose abortion.
There have always been those who would seek to keep unpopular views — or even people who did a single thing they disagree with — from having an audience. But I’m not sure that the rash of protests isn’t a manifestation as well of the current belief in student ownership of graduation.
Here is where the National Columnists Guild requires me to cite the self-esteem epidemic caused by helicopter parents begetting narcissistic graduates who think everything is about them. I am required by code to quote David McCullough Jr.’s speech to graduates of a suburban Massachusetts high school in 2012:
“Contrary to what your U9 soccer trophy suggests, your glowing seventh-grade report card, despite every assurance of a certain corpulent purple dinosaur, that nice Mister Rogers and your batty Aunt Sylvia, no matter how often your maternal caped crusader has swooped in to save you … you’re nothing special.”
With that obligation met — and while there is something to that narrative — I prefer to prescribe than condemn. High school and college leaders — and yes, parents — should start reclaiming commencement as an event that celebrates the institution and the values of education first.
Graduates, no matter how accomplished, come and go. The institution, hopefully, endures. The faculty past and present, alumni who have gone on to great accomplishments and sacrifices, and the standards they mutually stand for should be honored before the students are.
If we change the meaning of the event, if we instill the notion that it is honor enough to be part of that tradition, if we alter the sense of entitlement, then perhaps we end the expectation that every decision — including the choice of commencement speakers — should be about pleasing the graduates.
Because it isn’t your ceremony, graduates — it’s the school’s ceremony.