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 never happens, 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 UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau — cancelled their commencement speeches this spring after a typhoon of campus activism.
Consider what happened this week with Birgeneau, who had been scheduled to speak at Haverford College, a close-knit liberal arts school just outside Philadelphia.
By some measures, Birgeneau is the perfect person to give a graduation speech: Successful, civic-minded and notable, not least for guiding Berkeley as it became the first American public university to offer comprehensive financial aid to students in the country illegally. But Birgeneau was actually far from ideal, some Haverford students and faculty decided.
Despite his left-friendly work on immigration, they said they wanted Birgeneau to apologize for how campus police 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’re squashing 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 free-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.”
Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice – former provost of Stanford University — withdrew from Rutgers’ graduation ceremony due to protests over her involvement with the Iraq war. She had reportedly been slated to receive $35,000 in speaking fees and an honorary doctorate, and was replaced by former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean.
Then there was Lagarde, who bowed out from Smith College’s commencement after a student petition lauded her work as a “strong female leader” but said it could not condone her involvement in the IMF, 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 only selected white women for 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.
Both 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.
Of course, 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 questions that the star of stoner comedies was perhaps less than esteemed.
(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 the recent campus blow back belongs in its 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, pointed to a 2013 dust-up at Brown University in which former New York police head Ray 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 how the NYPD cracked down on Occupy Wall Street protesters. His embarrassment at Brown became a YouTube moment that other officials would likely hope to avoid.
Haverford senior Michael Rushmore, 23, who was instrumental in organizing the opposition to Birgeneau, the former UC Berkeley Chancellor, said Birgeneau’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 he commissioned in 2012 criticized campus police’s use of batons and pepper spray on the demonstrators.
When 40 to 50 Haverford students and faculty 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.
Rushmore said that “Plan A” had been for Birgeneau to agree to the Haverford students' demands, at which point “he comes and we’re excited he’s coming.”
“Plan B was, we don’t want you to come,” Rushmore said. “Plan C was, we protest.”
The student added, “I would say this is a minor victory, because it doesn’t really move things forward.”