Commencement conundrums

Alan Ryan on a recent US wave of student protests over high-profile guests

May 29, 2014

Like other British spectators of the American academic scene, I have always been baffled by the fact of “Commencement”, the ceremonial ending of the academic year when freshly minted graduates are awarded their degrees before an audience of admiring (and no doubt, frequently even more relieved than admiring) parents and friends. It’s not the wish to celebrate that is puzzling; the majority of universities in the UK and elsewhere have some sort of graduation day when degrees are handed out en masse and mortar boards are hurled in the air.

The puzzle is the big deal that is made of commencement speakers. Not everyone goes in for inviting the great, the good or the merely notorious to address the new graduates. Princeton University avoids the trouble by having the president of the university deliver the commencement address – except at the half-centenary celebrations of its foundation in 1746, when the president of the US gets to do it. This year has been marked by a great deal of ill-natured squabbling about the choice of speakers put forward by the trustees; three cases caught the headlines. The young women of Smith College rebelled against the choice of Christine Lagarde, the students at Rutgers rebelled against the choice of Condoleezza Rice and the students of Haverford College rebelled against the choice of Robert Birgeneau, the chancellor of Berkeley.

It all seems very odd. Commencement audiences are there to watch students graduate, not debate Iraq or the policies of the IMF

The targets of their protests were not exactly innocents, and not exactly new to controversy. The students at Smith who wished not to see Lagarde thought of the International Monetary Fund as a prime mover in sustaining international inequality and keeping poor nations trapped in unpayable debt. Whatever there is to be said on the other side, the IMF’s record in enforcing “austerity” on economically troubled states has been widely complained of, so there was nothing very astonishing about the students’ views; the same can surely be said of the foreign policy of George W. Bush, and Rice was, after all, deeply involved in the entire Iraq fiasco; as to Birgeneau, he made himself deeply unpopular by calling the cops on students who launched an “Occupy Berkeley” movement during 2011. California police and California students are a combustible mixture, with the police being much too quick to reach for their tear gas and their bean bag guns when faced with students doing nothing more violent than linking arms to form a human chain around buildings.

All three speakers backed out after students protested against their being invited. Then the fun started. Critics of the students made the usual speeches about the importance of free speech and uttered the usual platitudes about universities being places for the civil exchange of opposing opinions; since the complaints about the speakers came from students on the left of the political spectrum, right-wing commentators had a field day. It is true that the radicals have recently not covered themselves with glory in the matter of robust intellectual exchange. There has been a move afoot to require university teachers to warn students (with a so-called “trigger warning”) that some of the material on their reading lists may trigger adverse emotional reactions. Behind it lies a perfectly sensible thought, that someone who has, for instance, suffered a sexual assault in the past may find a movie depicting a violent rape bringing on an uncontrollable reaction. As always with attempts to protect students against sudden, unexpected and unpredictable encounters with things that may trigger distress, this has slid from the obvious good sense of alerting students to the possible impact of something that is designed to cause a shock to the suggestion that distress warnings should be attached to reading lists and the like.

In the past, of course, it was the sensibilities of conservatives and the devout that were protected in this way, and it is still true that American school boards annually ban all manner of things from school libraries on this basis. Even The Grapes of Wrath still upsets the occasional school district. Now we have the paternalistic left succumbing to the same urge. At all events, the replacement speakers for Rice, Lagarde and Birgeneau stood up for the virtues of free speech, robust debate and tolerance of other people’s opinions. Former Princeton president William Bowen, speaking at Haverford, was particularly unkind about the protesters’ offences against free speech and common courtesy alike. But it all seems very odd. Commencement addresses are not part of a debate. The audience is there to watch students graduate, not to debate Iraq or the policies of the IMF. The ex-governor of New Jersey, Tom Kean, standing in for Rice, got it absolutely right when he said that the commencement speaker was like the body at an Irish wake: it is necessary, but you don’t want it to intrude too much on what else is going on.

Having a high-profile speaker is, of course, not much to do with the speaker’s opinions let alone anything academic. Getting a big-name speaker – often at considerable expense – is a form of institutional showing-off; it sends the message that “we” – and not “they” – can attract a top-tier speaker. It goes along with all the other things that gratify the vanity of trustees and, they hope, attract the kindness of donors. Nor, it should be said, is the phenomenon purely American. There was, after all, the occasion many years ago when Oxford academics voted down the proposal to give the late Baroness Thatcher an honorary degree; critics then said almost exactly what critics have been saying now.

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