Free Speeches

This week yet another load of college-educated Americans poured forth from their institutions and into Real Life, for which many of them are woefully unprepared. The universities sped them on their way with the long-standing rite of the commencement speech, typically thirty minutes of boredom and platitudes, but not without controversy. So at least it wasn’t a complete loss.

The award for Kerfuffle of the Week certainly goes to Haverford College, a small Pennsylvania liberal-arts college, for disinviting former UC Berkeley chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau as its commencement speaker. The full text of the letter written to Birgeneau can be found here, courtesy of the Haverford student newspaper The Clerk. For those who didn’t read it, students and faculty of the college criticized the former chancellor for his role in the forceful dispersion of an Occupy protest in Berkeley back in 2011, and cited his message the the UC Berkeley community about the protests as antithetical to the philosophy of their institution. They then set for a list of demands for Birgeneau to meet, or else be disinvited from speaking. Among these demands were an acknowledgement of an active role in the crackdown on the Occupy protest and a statement enumerating and explaining “what you learned.” In a hilariously terse letter, Birgeneau declined to issue what the Washington Post‘s editorial board called a “Soviet-style forced confession.”

So, to replace Birgeneau, Haverford invited former Princeton president William Bowen to make a speech, and boy did they get one. After Michael Rushmore, speaking as a member of the graduating class, said that given Birgeneau’s refusal to meet their demads, “this is a minor victory in solidarity with the students at Berkeley and I’ll take that,” Bowen had some words of his own to add. Again, I’m linking you to the full text of the speech because I’m a nice dude. Essentially, Bowen said that this incident was a shameful failure on both sides, and that the best possible outcome now was, in an interesting reversal, everyone walking away having learned something. The “minor victory,” he said, was a huge defeat of the values of open-mindedness and mutual respect that the faculty and students espoused.

And Haverford wasn’t the only college to do this. Condoleezza Rice, backed out of a planned speech at Rutgers because of complaints about her role in the Iraq War. Christine Lagarde backed out of Smith College’s ceremony due to a petition (just the incomplete petition) to have her disinvited. And Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s speech and honorary degree was actually cancelled by Brandeis University because of her rather extreme views on Islam.

Obviously, four high-profile instances don’t account for all commencement speeches, but they do highlight a continuing trend of ghettoization, which extends far beyond the scope of the commencement address. While perhaps less segregated by race, we have chosen to divide ourselves into ever smaller groups, adopting a tribal mentality along the way. We have our world view, and the things that don’t fall into line with it we tend to push away. As William Bowen said, no one wins.

For college students, leaving the safety and stability of a structured life and setting out into the wider world for the first time, it is better that their speaker be someone whose views differ from their own, because beyond the walls of that ivory tower is an entire planet of conflict. Isolating oneself from philosophical or political challenge demonstrates a kind of laziness unbefitting a college graduate.

For more on working one’s ass off toward a goal, I’m embedding Charlie Day’s Merrimack College commencement address, partly because I wish I’d heard it about ten years ago. It probably would have prevented me from settling for “good enough” in the moments that really mattered.


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