Commencement speakers: Conservatives need not apply

Former Bush administration official Robert Zoellick recently withdrew as a commencement speaker at Swarthmore College.
(Esteban Felix / Associated Press)

We have once again entered the college commencement season, which means we’ll soon be reading about uplifting graduation speeches delivered by prominent Americans. Or at least by prominent liberal Americans.

It’s becoming increasingly apparent that conservative speakers aren’t welcome on college and university campuses.

Last month, in the span of a few days, student protests disrupted a presentation by Karl Rove at the University of Massachusetts and one by Rand Paul at Howard University. That same week, former Bush administration official Robert Zoellick withdrew as a commencement speaker at Swarthmore College, while Obama critic Ben Carson did the same at Johns Hopkins.


Zoellick, a Swarthmore alumnus like me, pulled out after being attacked by students who said he’d helped instigate the Iraq war — a preposterous claim considering he was the U.S. trade representative at the time the conflict began. But even Zoellick’s supporters on campus didn’t mount much of a defense. A well-meaning campus newspaper editorial implied that Zoellick should be allowed to speak because he was not one of the truly evil Republicans — like George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld or Paul Wolfowitz — who rightly should be personae non gratae on campus.

If Zoellick, a moderate gentleman with an impressive record promoting women’s rights as president of the World Bank, can’t speak on a college campus, no Republican can. Indeed, a look at the data suggests that is how things are trending.

There are many lectures on college campuses on any given day, and assessing the relative proportion of liberals and conservatives is a difficult task. Commencement addresses, however, provide a good measure. Virtually every school has at least one, and they are prime opportunities for speakers to address an entire campus community.

To gauge how rare it is for a conservative to be invited to speak at a college graduation, I looked at commencement and other announced graduation event speakers for 2012 and 2013 from the top 100 universities and top 50 liberal arts colleges (according to the U.S. News & World Report rankings). Then I tried to identify them as liberal or conservative based on their party affiliation, if I could determine it. For public officials, I looked at the party affiliations of those they served. I then looked up speakers in’s database of campaign contributions, noting whether speakers had donated to candidates from one party or both. If a speaker endorsed a presidential candidate in 2012, I noted that as well, and identified the speaker with that candidate’s ideology.

In 2012, the political leanings of 84 people were identifiable. In 2013, with speakers still being announced, 69 are.

In 2012, only one Republican elected official was invited to speak at a top 50 liberal arts college: Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell at the University of Richmond. The top 100 universities invited three Republican officeholders: Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal spoke at both the University of Georgia and the Georgia Institute of Technology, and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham spoke at Clemson. Missouri Rep. Sam Graves spoke at the University of Missouri.


No Republican official spoke outside of his home state. When one expands to former Republican political appointees, the picture only changes slightly; Colin L. Powell (who endorsed President Obama in the last election) spoke at Northeastern University, and Condoleezza Rice spoke at Southern Methodist University. There were no conservative speakers at Ivy League commencements and no conservative elected officials who spoke outside of the South.

Democrats, on the other hand, were everywhere. Sixteen speeches were given by Obama administration officials alone. All told, and including the data on political contributions, there were only three identifiably conservative speakers at the top 50 colleges and 12 at the top 100 universities, compared with a total of 69 identifiably liberal speakers.

The results for 2013 are similar, though not all the schools had named their speakers when I did my research. With Zoellick’s withdrawal, no current or former Republican public official is scheduled to speak at the top 50 colleges, and only four will address the top 100 universities — with Jon Huntsman the only one outside of his home state. Again, there are no conservatives scheduled to speak in the Ivy League. Newark, N.J.’s Democratic mayor, Cory Booker, who is speaking at Washington University, Cornell and Yale, has as many addresses as all current elected Republicans combined. Factoring in campaign contributions and public endorsements, liberals outnumber conservatives by about 6 to 1.

America’s liberal arts colleges are especially hostile territory, and the few conservatives who are invited to speak at them, such as David Brooks of the New York Times, tend to be on the moderate side.

A longer look at the data for Swarthmore makes the controversy over Zoellick more understandable. If Zoellick had received the honorary degree he was offered this year, he would have been only the second former member of a Republican administration to be given an honorary degree since 1994. That is out of 67 honorees, including those scheduled to be honored this year. One additional honoree, Alberto Mora in 2008, served under both Bush administrations and the Clinton administration, but he was best known for having publicly opposed George W. Bush’s policies on coercive interrogation.

Aside from a Reagan-appointed federal judge, who was honored in 2012, the only other honorees whose political affiliations could be discerned through campaign contributions or federal appointments were all liberals, including 18 who have donated to Democratic campaigns, seven who served as members or advisors to Democratic officials and three who ran for office under liberal parties, such as a former gubernatorial candidate in California who was nominated by the Peace and Freedom Party.


Obama won the votes of the majority of college students in November because many of them were predisposed to vote for him before they attended college and because many of them began to find their political identities at the colleges themselves. There is no question that a primary objective of today’s academic institutions, which allow conservatives to be shouted down if they are invited at all, is not to educate students but rather to educate reliable Democratic votes.

America has become much more polarized over the last few decades, and observers have blamed politicians and gerrymandering. But some of the blame lies elsewhere. America’s institutions of higher education have become some of the most polarizing institutions in our society. Students who pass through them are remarkably well-prepared to join our uncivil political discourse.

Kevin Hassett is director of economic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.