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Schools that invite controversial commencement speakers are asking for trouble [Letter]

There has been much tsk-tsking this college graduation season about students protesting their administration-chosen commencement speakers ("It's speech season on campus — and it's notable for ones not given," May 21).

The finger-waggers seem to take one of two positions: 1) We weren't rude like that in our day; or 2) Leftist faculty have corrupted the values we tried to give our children and done away with free speech.

Set aside for the moment the question of how effective 18 years of parental influence could have been if it can be wiped out by a couple of hours a week with a college faculty member.

In their self-righteousness, these guardians of morality neglect the fact that a commencement address is fundamentally different from other campus speeches.

First, a commencement address is a more controlling event. Students should not be coerced into choosing between honoring an individual they find abhorrent or avoiding their own graduation. And unlike normal campus talks, there is no opportunity to ask questions or offer opposing views.

Second, the invitation to speak at commencement most often comes not from the students but from the college administration. Thus, protesting students are not being rude to their guest; rather, they are trying to change the mind of the official host.

Most important, being named commencement speaker is an honor officially endowed by the institution. In many cases it is accompanied by an honorary degree or cash honorarium. The institution in effect is saying to graduates: "We endorse this person as honorable and worthy to give you your last piece of advice here."

Thus, a speaker who would be perfectly acceptable if invited during the year by the Young Republicans or Young Democrats or Young Fascists or Young Communists might be unacceptable for official college honors.

At Haverford College, students understandably objected to honoring a University of California-Berkeley chancellor who, whatever his other merits, was complicit in campus police clubbing peaceful student demonstrators with batons and yanking a faculty member to the ground by her hair.

At Rutgers, students understandably objected to honoring a former U.S. secretary of state who was complicit in plunging the nation into war on false pretenses at the cost of tens of thousands of American and Iraqi lives and billions in wasted tax money.

At Smith, a women's college, students likewise understandably objected to honoring the head of the International Monetary Fund, an organization whose monetary policies have hurt women's ability to become educated and feed their families.

All these speakers might be invited to speak on those campuses on another occasion. However, we all could name people we would object to seeing officially honored at our school's graduation (Donald Sterling, anyone?). Don't students have that same right?

Colleges and universities would be wise to follow the practice of the University of Chicago. Rather than seek an outside celebrity, since 1970 that institution has awarded the honored position of commencement speaker to a distinguished faculty member. There's been much less controversy — and likely much better speeches as a result.

Terry Shepard, Baltimore

The writer is a former journalist and public affairs officer at the University of Illinois, Stanford University and Rice University.

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To respond to this letter, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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