Commencement Speakers Are Dropping Like Flies, Ctd

by Chris Bodenner

Several readers dissent:

Your selection of commentary on the rash of protests against commencement speakers seemed really one-sided and off base to me. Some of it was also dripping with contempt for the millennial generation. As a Rutgers alum who is currently an assistant professor at a large state university, I followed the Condi Rice story with interest and think the criticism of protesting students misses the boat.

Protest is a form of speech that is often the only available method of expressing dissent to those in power. As a college instructor, I’m thrilled to see politically engaged students speaking out against awarding honorary degrees and, in some cases, massive speaking fees (Rice was set to be paid $35K) to individuals who they believe do not represent their values. We can’t wag our fingers at millennials for being self-absorbed and then simultaneously criticize them for protesting powerful political figures, which is an inherently social and political act.

Also, at Rutgers, they protested and Rice decided to bow out. That’s a crucial distinction to me.

RU did not rescind its invitation; Rice decided not to attend. Myself, I’ll take vocal dissent over apathy every day of the week. And the likes of Condi Rice and Christine Lagarde should have thicker skin, show up to the event, and directly engage the substance of the dissenters’ point of view. Those dissenters are less powerful, less wealthy, and yes, maybe could learn something new from the engagement. But my sense is the Rices and Lagardes of the world are too privileged and too insulated to seriously entertain the notion of taking a little criticism. They’ll do the event only if everyone kisses their butt on their way to and from the podium.

Another reader makes another key distinction:

Commencement is unique. There is no opportunity for dialogue with a commencement speaker, no debating issues, no public forum where you can criticize them for their errors and try to get them to respond. Their very role of commencement speaker implies that an honor is being bestowed on them by the college, by that graduating class, for their accomplishments in the world outside the campus. And their role on the dais is to shed the value of their status on those about to graduate.

I applaud these students for making their voices heard. They have done the work and paid the price. It is not a false sense of entitlement to believe they do not have to put up with someone as commencement speaker they don’t believe is worth the honor. They are truly entitled to that. They have earned it. I nearly boycotted my own commencement in 1981 because the speaker was George Will. I wish I had had the courage of my convictions to do so at the time, and I salute these students for standing up and making their voices heard on this.

Another suggests that the would-be commencement speakers are the entitled ones:

I’m headed to my 40th Smith College reunion this weekend. I am disappointed that Christine Lagarde has withdrawn as speaker simply because some 400 or so people signed an online petition. Is that really all it takes? I fault Lagarde and the other withdrawing speakers more than the students who signed the petition. I mean really, I get asked to sign online petitions every day, and sometimes I actually do. It doesn’t take much effort, nor does it necessarily mean I’m going to take some further action, like, heaven forfend, hold up a protest sign at a speech or throw rotten tomatoes.

Lagarde’s excuse for withdrawing was that she wanted to “preserve the celebratory experience” of the commencement. There is no indication that there were any threats by petition signers to take any actions that would hamper the celebrations. A few protest signs, if there were going to be any, wouldn’t have done any harm. I feel that these last-minute withdrawals by Lagarde and the other speakers doing so are going to have a chilling effect on the exercise of future student protesters’ first amendment rights to voice their protests. They are in effect saying, “If you complain about me or the institution I represent, I’m going to pack up my marbles and refuse to play.”

If the college and the speaker feel the speaker has something useful to say to the students, they ought to be willing to say it and take a little flak if necessary. I think she’s a coward.