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Not Holding Their Tongues: Can the Commencement Speech Be Saved?

May 28, 2014
by Stacy Finz

When a band of student protesters booed and heckled UC President Janet Napolitano at Laney College over the weekend—to the point where graduates could barely hear her—she became but the latest in a series of invited speakers who’ve suddenly found themselves in the thick of guerilla war over commencement addresses.

At Laney, a community college in Oakland that educates many undergraduates hoping to transfer to a UC campus, some students hold Napolitano personally responsible for an aggressive policy of deporting undocumented immigrants when she served as chief of Homeland Security under President Obama. It didn’t matter that she opened her remarks by discussing the student massacre of six people near the UC Santa Barbara campus last Friday; protestors disrupted the speech by shouting and pumping their fists.

Colleges and universities crave commencement speakers of prominence—indeed the more prominent, the better—and yet the very qualities that give people prominence typically make them controversial and thus, at least to some, objectionable. Loud, not always large, student protests have forced planned speakers across the country to either bow out or get themselves disinvited. And that’s prompting some soul-searching on campuses about when, and if, such attempts to silence controversial, or even disliked, speakers is justified.

Protesters often argue that a commencement speech doesn’t further dialogue, but instead encourages monologue, with no real opportunity for students to engage the face behind the podium. A UC Berkeley constitutional law expert is among those recommending a potential solution—a compromise aimed at neutralizing some of the vitriol while giving both speechmakers and their opponents an opportunity to be heard.

Robert H. Cole, law professor emeritus and witness to many years of campus dissidence, draws an idea from Berkeley’s past experience: He suggests that hosting a forum with controversial graduation speakers can allow for a genuine exchange of ideas. Even so, recent experience on other campuses suggests the tactic doesn’t always work.

Napolitano’s spokesman, Steve Montiel, told reporters the response to her Laney address was “particularly disappointing.” But the UC president wasn’t the only graduation speaker in 2014 to be persona non grata—not by a long shot.

Controversy erupted when Haverford, a Quaker college in Pennsylvania, invited former UC Berkeley chancellor Robert Birgeneau to be its commencement speaker. Fifty faculty members and students took issue with his past handling of an Occupy Cal demonstration at which police used batons against protesters. They said they would support his visit only if he met nine conditions, including writing a letter explaining “what you learned from” the experience.

Birgeneau responded: “First, I have never and will never respond to lists of demands. Second, as a longtime civil rights activist and firm supporter of nonviolence, I do not respond to untruthful, violent verbal attacks.”

The prospects for an agreeable resolution dim when one side demands a “what you learned” essay, and the other side deploys the phrase “violent verbal attacks.” Ultimately, Birgeneau withdrew as speaker.

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice seemed to take the high road when faculty at Rutgers University objected to her commencement role, calling for the administration to disinvite her. Her offense: the Iraq war. Her response: “Commencement should be a time of joyous celebration for the graduates and their families. Rutgers’ invitation to me to speak has become a distraction for the university community at this very special time.”

“The uni­versity eth­ic­ally should fa­cil­it­ate a counter point of view. Isn’t that con­sist­ent with what our concept of a uni­versity is?”

Christine Lagarde, chief of the International Monetary Fund, pulled out of delivering a speech at Smith College in Massachusetts under pressure from students, whose petition accused her of “strengthening of imperialist and patriarchal systems that oppress and abuse women worldwide.”

Cole believes universities could learn from the lead Berkeley took in 1966. At the time, Cole was part of a brain trust to deal with campus unrest over the Vietnam War. Former Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg, a U.N. ambassador defending the Johnson administration’s war policy, had been invited to speak and receive an honorary degree from Cal. Campus protesters had threatened major demonstrations.

Cole recalls how the chancellor and their brain trust came up with a way to defuse the demonstrators. After Goldberg’s speech, the entire assemblage was moved to Harmon Gymnasium for a debate: Goldberg versus a leading faculty opponent of the war. At the end of the debate, 7,000 students voted in favor of the faculty member, whereas Goldberg only received a smattering of votes.

“This,” Cole says, “was a magnificent piece of free speech, an absolute triumph. And there is no reason why universities couldn’t do this sort of thing before or after a commencement speech by a controversial figure.”

Cole says it could even be a Q & A, where the speaker could account for his or her provocative actions or decisions.

“The university ethically should facilitate a counter point of view,” he says. “Isn’t that consistent with what our concept of a university is?”

Currently, some schools give students primary responsibility for choosing the commencement speaker. But other universities, especially large ones, have trouble relinquishing that control. It’s become a contest of getting big name headliners to put a school on the map. Even so, Cole says university heads should anticipate objections when they choose contentious figures and then be ready to defend their decisions. And, he adds, the process should include the stakeholders.

“Who needs the ag­grav­a­tion? Really, who the hell needs it?”

For example: How could Brandeis not have anticipated it might be putting itself in a sticky situation by awarding Ayaan Hirsi Ali, an advocate for Muslim women and a denouncer of Islam (she once called the religion “a destructive, nihilistic cult of death”) an honorary degree? The school later reneged when students complained.

“Honorary degrees expose universities to a broader range of objection,” Cole says. “A university may not agree or disagree with a person’s speech, but an honorary degree is an endorsement of that person.” He believes universities should set public criteria for giving out honorary degrees, and steer away from awarding them to people merely because they are famous.

Jesse Choper, Earl Warren Professor of Public Law at Berkeley Law School and a First Amendment lawyer, chalks up a lot of these commencement speech issues to political correctness. “That’s why I’m not a fan,” he says. “I think it’s important to have a variety of views.”

To this day, he remembers a small group that tried to hijack a Berkeley law school graduation in the 1990s by hiring a plane to fly a banner over the ceremony to protest the ban on affirmative action.  “I don’t think it was effective at all,” Choper says. “And there were plenty of students who were annoyed.”

It’s worth noting that when passions run high, it can be difficult to assuage protesters even with offers of a forum or Q and A. This past fall, New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly—noted for the city’s contentious stop-and-frisk policy, which was later declared unconstitutional for targeting minorities—agreed not only to give a special lecture at Brown University but also to answer questions from student opponents. That didn’t stop protesters from booing and shouting down his speech for a full 30 minutes before the university was forced to pull the plug on the entire event.

But even that can’t be considered the coldest shoulder given to an invited speaker this year. After Attorney General Eric Holder was invited to be a presenter at the Oklahoma City police academy’s graduation, gun enthusiasts urged officers at the ceremony to handcuff the highest ranking law enforcement official in the nation—maybe not the classiest move. Holder canceled his appearance.

“Who needs the aggravation?” Choper says. “Really, who the hell needs it?”

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