Friday Round-up: Campus Speech Edition

It's graduation season, and controversial commencement speakers are stepping down in the face of student and faculty opposition. Have the protests gone too far?

By Nathan Pippenger

If you’ve recently been invited to deliver a commencement speech, don’t be too complacent: Would-be graduation speakers are dropping like flies these days. In the face of campus protests, invitees including former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, author and activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and IMF head Christine Lagarde have had to change their Graduation Day plans. Brandeis rescinded its controversial invitation to Hirsi Ali, and both Rice and Lagarde chose to withdraw in response to opposition from professors and students. Is there anything unique about this year’s set of commencement controversies?

Damon Linker accuses today’s campus protestors of an especially sanctimonious moralism: each protest betrays “a longing to simplify the world, to wish away our conflicts and deny the need to get one’s hands dirty.” Isaac Chotiner stresses that not all cases are the same—Hirsi Ali, for instance, notoriously declared in 2007 that “we are at war with Islam,” and that the West needs to “crush [its] enemy […] in all forms.” “It can certainly be argued,” writes Chotiner, “that some of her more extreme (and stupid) views meant that she didn’t deserve” an honorary degree. But not all of the targets of recent protests are quite so offensive, and opposition to figures like Lagarde shows that schools aren’t distinguishing between speakers who are simply bad and those who are “beyond the pale”—so much so that they ought to stay off college campuses, which “are supposed to be places where opposing viewpoints clash.”

Jacqui Shine, a graduate of Smith College (where students protested Lagarde’s appearance), has a different take. “Protesting a commencement speaker,” Shine argues, “is not an endorsement of censorship or in opposition to academic freedom.” Since commencement speakers are given the entire stage to speak without facing rebuttal, protestors are simply taking advantage of the only means of response available to them. Shine argues that the self-professed defenders of academic freedom who have criticized such protests are probably uncomfortable with the notion that students and faculty who disagree with a commencement speaker—and who “have no recourse to meaningful and respectful debate”—should “simply listen without objection or response to a speaker whose ideas offend them.”

At most campuses, these debates will likely recur around this time every year. A recent Bloomberg article, however, raises the possibility of change—perhaps by including faculty and students in the process of picking speakers. Failing that, more drastic steps might be in the offing. “Perhaps,” suggests an exasperated-sounding Lawrence Bacow, the former president of Tufts University, “we should just discontinue the practice of having commencement speakers completely.”

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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