Students put pressure on big names to cancel commencement speeches

With a few exceptions, most graduation speeches are forgettable: Work hard. Chase your dreams. Don't give up.

But the most forgettable graduation speech of all is the one that is never delivered, which seems to be happening more and more these days.

At least three prominent leaders - former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde and former University of Califonia, Berkeley, Chancellor Robert Birgeneau - canceled their commencement speeches this spring after a torrent of campus activism.

Consider what happened last week with Birgeneau, who had been scheduled to speak at Haverford College, a liberal arts school outside Philadelphia.

By some measures, Birgeneau is the perfect person to give a graduation speech: He is successful, civic-minded and notable, not the least of which is for guiding UC Berkeley as it became the first American public university to offer comprehensive financial aid to students who are in the country illegally. But Birgeneau was actually far from ideal, some Haverford students and faculty members decided.

Despite his left-friendly work on immigration, they said they wanted Birgeneau to apologize for campus police who brutalized Occupy Wall Street demonstrators in 2011 - or else they would protest his graduation speech.

In response, Birgeneau decided not to attend the graduation. His cancellation, the most recent of the three, is raising concerns in some quarters that campus leftist groups are putting so much emphasis on social justice issues that they are quashing the spirit of open debate.

"Over the past two years, it's really been intense," said Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a group that monitors freedom of speech issues on college campuses. "I think universities are being more cautious about this and politely approaching speakers to say 'It'll probably be really messy if you speak here.'''

Rice - the former provost of Stanford University - withdrew from Rutgers' graduation ceremony due to protests over her involvement with the Iraq war. She had reportedly been scheduled to receive $35,000 in speaking fees and an honorary doctorate. She was replaced by former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean.

Lagarde bowed out from Smith College's commencement after a student petition praised her work as a "strong female leader" but said it could not condone her involvement in the International Monetary Fund, an organization that "has led directly to the strengthening of imperialist and patriarchal systems that oppress and abuse women worldwide."

In an open letter, one senior, Ifetayo Harvey, wondered why the women's college had selected only white women as commencement speakers for the past 12 years.

"If anything, this speaker choice has confirmed many suspicions: that minority students are wanted at face value in elite college settings and elite colleges like Smith are not ready to fully embrace people of color," Harvey wrote.

Lagarde and Rice bowed out, saying that they would rather not distract from the celebratory mood of graduation, handing their critics a victory. Ruth Simmons, former president of Smith, was named as Lagarde's replacement.

Commencement speakers have always been controversial, and not always for overtly political reasons. In 2009, actor James Franco backed out of a graduation speech at UCLA after some students raised objections that the star of stoner comedies was perhaps less than admirable.

TV host Jerry Springer, the king of trashy daytime TV, withstood similar student criticism to deliver a speech at Northwestern University School of Law in 2008. "I, too, would've chosen someone else," Springer told the students, before delivering a heartfelt meditation on ethics and humility in which he mentioned that several members of his family had died in the Holocaust.

But some observers say that the recent campus protests belong in their own category, which political writer Michelle Goldberg, in a column for The Nation, called "left-wing anti-liberalism" - the idea that some speech and some people are so politically disagreeable that their views don't need to be heard.

Lukianoff, of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, cited a 2013 dispute at Brown University in which former New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly's speech to students had to be canceled after he was shouted down and unable to speak.

Kelly has long been despised by the left for his defense of stop-and-frisk policies and for the way New York police cracked down on Occupy Wall Street protesters. His embarrassment at Brown became a YouTube moment that other officials would probably hope to avoid.

Haverford senior Michael Rushmore, 23, who was instrumental in organizing the opposition to Birgeneau, said the former UC chancellor's opposition to the campus' Occupy demonstrators was "the thing that sticks out the most in our minds when we see him."

Birgeneau could not be reached for comment. An independent review that he commissioned in 2012 criticized campus police officers' use of batons and pepper spray on the demonstrators.

When 40 to 50 Haverford students and faculty members signed a letter demanding that Birgeneau thoroughly apologize for the incident and push for related reforms, the former chancellor responded with a terse no, and ultimately withdrew his unpaid invitation to speak and receive an honorary degree. Birgeneau was one of four speakers scheduled to give brief remarks.

The student added, "I would say this is a minor victory because it doesn't really move things forward."

 

 

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