May 30, 2014 by Robert Zaller
For four years, students endure the boredom of being lectured at, and then at graduation they endure a final hour in the form of the commencement address. This rite of passage crept in a while back and has now become part of our celebrity culture: the ambassador from the real world who comes to shine his importance briefly on those who are about to enter it and the institution that shoos them into it.
Normally, this is a routine function that is taken for granted. The commencement speech is understood to be an ensemble of adjurations stitched together with platitudes, leavened with jokes, and rounded off with a pat on the back. It’s a little like listening to your aunt or uncle at Thanksgiving: bad as it is, you just wait through it until you can get to the turkey.
This year, however, serious controversy has erupted over the commencement address. The most prominent flap was at Rutgers University, where students and some faculty objected to the selection of Condoleezza Rice as the speaker. Rice has respectable academic credentials: she was a Sovietologist and provost at Stanford University. Unfortunately, she was also George W. Bush’s national security adviser and later secretary of state. In this capacity, she participated in the Bush-Cheney plot to launch war against a nonbelligerent state, Iraq. An invasion which, as former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan delicately put it, appeared to be a violation of international law, not to mention the Nuremburg Code under which we prosecuted Nazi war criminals.
When Rice, also an amateur pianist, was engaged a few years ago to perform at the Mann Center concerts, I pointed out that this was the first time an unindicted war criminal had played with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Rehabilitating her, though, is a little more difficult than in the case of, say, Monica Lewinsky. It was Rice who made the famous comment that we could not afford to let Saddam Hussein continue his ruthless pursuit of nuclear weapons, lest the smoking gun that demonstrated it for all to see be a mushroom cloud. Alas — for 4,400 dead American soldiers and the numerous uncounted Iraqis — the only mushroom cloud turned out to be the one that hangs permanently over her reputation.
There isn’t much most of us can do about the fact that Rice continues to reap substantial rewards on the lecture circuit in her post-secretarial career rather than gazing out from behind bars, but when Rutgers sent her an invite, enough people decided that they didn’t want her particular cloud over their graduation ceremonies that she thought it prudent to cancel her appearance. Note, please, that her invitation was not rescinded, nor did any university official concede that it had been, to put it mildly, inappropriate. Nor did anyone thank the student and faculty protesters for standing up for common decency and the reputation of their institution, not to mention the rule of law. They were scolded, rather, for their bad manners.
At Haverford College, protests arose over the commencement invitation to Robert J. Birgeneau, who, as chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, had defended the use of force by campus police and Alameda County, Calif., sheriffs’ deputies who charged peacefully assembled students on Sproul Plaza with riot batons. The protesters did not demand that the invitation be rescinded, but wanted to make it conditional on Birgeneau’s willingness to address the incident publicly. Birgeneau withdrew, and Haverford President Daniel Weiss lamented the lost opportunity to “hear from one of the most consequential leaders in American higher education.”
I guess refusing to discuss one’s responsibility in the violent suppression of student dissent is what consequential leaders in American higher education do. The Haverford students were addressed instead by William G. Bowen, a former president of Princeton University, who rebuked them for their incivility. It’s a good thing Princeton students weren’t trying to exercise their First Amendment rights at Princeton during Bowen’s administration.
At Smith College, meanwhile, Christine Lagarde, the imperious head of the International Monetary Fund, backed out of her scheduled graduation address after protests at the IMF’s role in exploiting developing nations’ economies. Lagarde, too, is a piece of work. My favorite line of hers is the response she made to the ruinous economic conditions imposed on Greece by the European Union and the IMF: “I weep for the children of Nigeria.” Apparently, the spoiled brats of Greece would just have to go without dinner.
Drexel University has had its own share of bad choices, notably Carl Icahn, the corporate raider who was invited to address commencement a few years back. A non-speaker whose invitation to campus was even more of a scandal was Jiang Zemin, the butcher of Tiananmen Square. When that occurred, I suggested that Drexel might make some slight amends by inviting Wei Jinsheng, then the most prominent Chinese dissident-in-exile, to speak at graduation. No one got back to me on that one.
This raises the vexing question of how and by whom commencement speakers are chosen. At one time, faculty suggestions were entertained, though of course never acted upon. It is now a corporate prerogative reserved to senior administrators and trustees, who have naturally arrogated themselves the right to represent their institutions on this as on all other occasions. As for attending students and faculty, well, their job is to listen and applaud, which is pretty much the general routine in student and faculty matters. When they do have an opinion, it is fractious by definition, since they are excluded from any substantive university decision-making process. Father knows best.
Those who decry the protests over commencement addresses point out that if speakers are to be vetted for political correctness, there will be few qualified and fewer willing to deliver them. Almost any public figure is sure to have offended someone. But there is no First Amendment right to speak at commencements, and anyone entering the precincts of a university ought to be willing to engage in debate. This is precisely what Chancellor Birgeneau declined to do, and what former President Bowen chastised Haverford for asking.
What we ought to do is to reconsider the commencement address itself. Other visitors to a university do come prepared for questioning and discussion. That’s what participating in the life of a campus is all about. Only commencement speakers declaim from on high and presume to hold themselves above normal academic debate. If their politics are an issue, it’s because their selection is a political act in the first place, only one from which democratic process is absent. And who really needs them? If the general university community as a whole chose graduation to give a platform to those whose voices are marginalized or ignored in official culture, the commencement address might serve a worthwhile function. Otherwise, if a few words of praise and encouragement need to be delivered, surely university presidents or provosts — perhaps even a faculty member — should be articulate enough to utter them. And universities would save some money, too. Condoleezza Rice was going to get $35,000 for her pearls of wisdom at Rutgers. Surely there was a leaky roof the money could have been better spent on?
Robert Zaller is a professor of history at Drexel University. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.