It is graduation time again and both The New York Times and The Washington Post have surveyed the campuses, and their pundits have deplored the controversies in which the famous are invited to address graduates only to be forced to withdraw because various student or faculty groups object. In “The Commencement Bigots,” (N.Y. Times, 5/16) columnist Timothy Egan blames bigotry for the withdrawal of Condoleezza Rice at Rutgers; Christine Lagarde, chief of the International Monetary Fund, following a protest with 500 signers, at Smith College; and Robert J. Birgeneau, former chancellor of the University of California, Berekely, whose brief approval of police roughness on Occupy demonstrators disqualified him at Haverford College.
The Washington Post reports that at least 145 commencement speakers have withdrawn since 1987; 100 of those withdrawals occured in the last five years.
But is Egan correct in attributing all protests against certain speakers to “bigotry”? Let’s first make some basic distinctions between the categories of speakers and the standards that should govern their invitation.
Speakers invited by a small group (e.g., political or religious clubs) for events other than graduation: In most circumstances, they should be allowed to speak even though they are bound to say controversial things and make some authorities angry. Those opposed should invite another speaker with another point of view.
Recipients of honorary degrees: These, presumably, by their lives and public careers, represent the ideals of the university so clearly that the university identifies with and seeks to recognize their contributions to society. The trustees, who make these decisions, should ask themselves: Do we endorse what this person has done with his/her life?
Graduation speakers: This should be a wise and learned person who, in his/her intellectual life represents the ideals of the university. At Jesuit universities, for example, the talk would challenge the graduates and touch on moral questions raised during their four years, particularly those which link faith and justice.
This final category would exclude “celebrities,” defined by Gertrude Stein as “persons well known for being well known.” The Washington Post named recent “star” speakers James Franco, Sean “Diddy” Combs, reality TV star Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi and Kermit the Frog. Add to that TV anchors who collect huge stipends for a bland canned talk delivered at five other schools the same year. These names cater to the student who says, “I want somebody who will make me remember my graduation.”
I disagree with Timothy Egan who condemns the objections raised against certain political figures—like Condoleezza Rice—as “bigotry.” Ms. Rice is not merely a “scholar who overcame segregation to become secretary of state”; she gave her heart and soul to the most unnecessary and obviously immoral war in American history, a war St. John Paul II pleaded with President Bush not to start, was deemed unjust by moral theologians and which killed millions of innocent people. She can certainly be welcomed to a campus as a speaker, preferably at an open forum where faculty and students could question her. But Rutgers students were not “bigoted” in objecting to giving such a controversial figure the honor of speaking at their graduation.
This would apply even more to someone like Henry Kissinger, who recently spoke at a "secret" talk at Yale University. Today’s students, unless they have taken the right history elective, know little about the Vietnam War. If Kissigner visits a university campus, students should be required to Google “Henry Kissinger war criminal,” and inform themselves about his role in the assassination of Salvador Allende, the democratically elected president of Chile, in 1973; his role from 1969 to 1973 with Richard Nixon in the slaughter in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos of an estimated 4 million Indochinese, mostly noncombatants, plus the brutal Christmas bombing of Hanoi. Let him talk, but answer him.
The graduation address should be given by the university president, a faculty member or a renowned scholar whose books we might read and who would bring the four years into context and focus. In my 43 graduations at five Jesuit colleges and universities, I have witnessed some fine graduation addresses, including those by Richard Ford and Tom Fox, but perhaps the ideal speach was at Rockhurst College in Kansas City in 1980 by then elderly Jesuit and historian of philosophy Frederick Copleston. He announced that he was simply going to tell us “what philosophy is.” So he did; and if graduates had not known the answer before, they certainly did on graduation day.