Commencement speakers fair game for protest [Letter]

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There has been much tsk-tsking this college graduation season about students protesting their administration-chosen commencement speakers ("College: where kids become leftists," May 25). The finger-waggers seem to take one of two positions: Either we weren't rude like that in my day or lefty faculty have corrupted the values we parents tried to give our children and have done away with free speech. (Set aside for the moment the question of how effective 18 years of parental influence must have been if it can be wiped out by a couple of hours a week with faculty members over four years.)

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, they are trying to change the mind of the official host.


Third, and most important, being named commencement speaker is an honor officially endowed by the institution. (Note that in many cases it is accompanied by an honorary degree and/or a cash honorarium). The institution 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 — any group not The Institution — 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 officers clubbing peaceful student demonstrators with batons, breaking bones and yanking a faculty member to the ground by her hair. At Rutgers University, 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 killed and damaged and billions and billions of wasted tax dollars. At Smith College, students 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 to feed their families.

All these speakers may be invited to speak on those campuses on any other occasion. However, we all can name people we would object to seeing honored at our own graduations. (Donald Sterling, anyone?) Do not 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. Much less controversy and likely a much better speech.

Terry Shepard, Baltimore


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