Commencement Speakers Are Dropping Like Flies

IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde has withdrawn as Smith College’s commencement speaker after students and faculty protested and launched a petition to have her disinvited. Olivia Nuzzi thinks the Smithies’ successful protest says something about millennials’ entitlement:

Millennials have grown up in a world where you are never forced to see, hear or read anything that you haven’t personally selected. 7,000 TV channels, a DVR to skip commercials, millions of websites—we have been able to curate our own little worlds using technology, wherein nothing unpleasant or offensive can creep in. So when we’re forced to sit through a commercial or, heaven forbid, listen to someone talk who isn’t Mary-freakin’-Poppins, we can’t handle it.

The entire point of college is to be exposed to different things: Different types of people, different ideas—and maybe some of those people will hail from organizations that negatively impacted poor countries, or maybe they were partly responsible for a war that ate up the country’s resources and resulted in human rights abuses and lots of needless death. But if, at the end of your time as an undergrad, you haven’t learned that oftentimes you find great wisdom in shitty people, or just that there might be some value in hearing what someone you don’t like or respect might have to say, what on earth have you learned?

Amanda Hess also rolls her eyes at the protesters:

When Smith announced that former president Ruth Simmons would be replacing Lagarde as commencement speaker, some students claimed that the choice of Simmons was equally offensive (when she was president of Smith College in the run up to the financial crisis, Simmons also served on the board of Goldman Sachs). But others expressed disappointment that their commencement had been downgraded to “forgettable.” It’s hard to have it both ways, kids! These recent flare-ups reveal less about the speakers than the students’ own entitlement—students who believe they have paid for the right to a commencement experience that perfectly reflects both the stature and the political values of their elite higher educations. They want their commencements to be both high in profile and rich in personal meaning. That’s not just political correctness gone awry; that’s a bunch of 22-year-olds thinking they are owed exactly the experience they want. On the other hand: A uniquely tailored experience is just what elite schools are promising their students in exchange for their astronomical costs.

Damon Linker chastises the students’ “lazy moralism”:

Could the IMF be improved? Probably. Should it be replaced with another organization that would do a better job of helping the developing world? Perhaps. The point is that getting the IMF’s managing director disinvited from a college commencement ceremony brings us not one millimeter closer to either goal. …

And that’s what might be the most disheartening thing of all about this year’s commencement protests — how each of them grows out of a longing to simplify the world, to wish away our conflicts and deny the need to get one’s hands dirty. Fighting for the rights of women can be morally messy. The same can be said of serving as America’s leading diplomat. And overseeing the global economy. The Smith students haven’t learned this lesson yet. They’re too young to have seen the need to put away their childish things.

Katie Zezima notes that driving away commencement speakers is becoming pretty trendy:

Earlier this month former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice withdrew her decision to speak at Rutgers University commencement after students and faculty objected to her role in the Iraq war. Some students at Harvard University are opposed to former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg speaking at graduation, and students and faculty at Rowan University have created a petition protesting that the school is awarding its commencement speaker, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, with an honorary degree. Robert J. Birgeneau, the former chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, declined an invitation to speak at Haverford College’s commencement after students objected to a use of force by police during 2011 Occupy movement protests on campus.

Last year, former Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick didn’t speak at the graduation of his alma mater, Swarthmore College, after students said his involvement in the Bush administration and strong support for the Iraq war conflicted with its Quaker roots. Dr. Ben Carson withdrew from addressing graduates of Johns Hopkins University after students voiced unhappiness about his comments on same-sex marriage.

“Universities,” Greg Lukianoff argues, “have only themselves to blame for this mess”:

—not just for caving to pressure, but for teaching students the wrong lessons about the value of free and robust discourse. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), of which I am the president, has found speech codes—policies that heavily restrict speech that is protected under the First Amendment—at 59% of the more than 400 colleges we survey, and deals every day with campus censorship of often even mildly offensive speech. Colleges have taught a generation of students that they have a “right not to be offended.” This belief has inevitably morphed into an expectation among students that they will be confirmed in their beliefs, not challenged. It’s no wonder, then, that they apply increasingly strict purity tests to potential campus speakers.