With commencement season heading into full swing, the scandal du jour is the rising number of speakers hounded off their graduation podiums (podia?) by student protests or threats thereof.
But first, let’s turn to a commencement-related issue that gets much less attention than it deserves: the grotesque prices that many campus speakers demand for their appearances. Rice, for example, was in line to collect $35,000 along with her honorary doctorate from Rutgers — apparently not enough to steel her against some harsh words from the gallery. Her invoice put her well ahead of two previous Rutgers speakers, Nobel-winning novelist Toni Morrison, who got only $30,000 for the 2011 commencement, and "Jersey Shore" personality
Other speakers on the university circuit have done as well, or better. About 30% of colleges and universities pay for commencement addresses, as a lecture expert told my colleague Carla Hall in 2011.
When it comes to commencement, what are these people being paid for? Has anyone ever heard a truly memorable graduation speech? At my graduation from Colgate University, the speaker was the great progressive Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, who was then 74 and distinguished himself by being totally incoherent. (If you want to know the year, do your own research.)
A few years earlier, when the commencement speaker was Secretary of State William P. Rogers, an alumnus, scores of students walked out on his speech, a reasonably polite way of protesting the Nixon administration’s conduct of the
That brings us to the modern spate of speaker protests, and the distinction between silencing speakers and protesting their receiving the honor of a degree.
A commencement address is different from the average speaking engagement, which aims to provide the speaker with a platform to communicate his or her views and knowledge, no matter where they land on the political or social spectrum. Commencement invitations signify, or should, that the speaker embodies standards and values with which the university and its alumni wish to be identified.
Under the circumstances, then, it’s quite justified for the students at Haverford College to question whether former Berkeley Chancellor Birgeneau is a proper commencement speaker, given his supposed role in the 2011 campus confrontation between Occupy protestors on one side and the campus police and Alameda County sheriff’s deputies on the other. If Rutgers students think Condoleezza Rice’s role in the
Then there's the Ayaan Hirsi Ali case. The Somali-born Hirsi Ali is an outstanding spokesperson for women's rights. But she's also an uncompromising and extreme critic of Islam in general. The Brandeis administration blundered by offering her an honorary degree for her activism on behalf of women's rights, and only belatedly discovering the other, objectionable side of her world view. At that point it withdrew its offer of the degree.
But the university also proffered her an invitation, albeit vaguely worded, "to join us on campus in the future to engage in a dialogue." If the invitation was genuine, she should have accepted. Instead, she turned it down with the accusation that Brandeis and her critics "simply wanted me to be silenced."