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Latest campus trend? Tossing out graduation speakers

Feisty campus dissent is back. And it's winning.
Tassels hang from a cap during commencement exercises on May 9, 2014.
Tassels hang from a cap during commencement exercises on May 9, 2014.

A former secretary of state, the head of the International Monetary Fund, a university chancellor. All high-profile speakers on the prestigious college commencement address circuit. And yet each one was shamed -- by students and even some faculty -- into backing out of coveted invitations this graduation season.

Feisty campus dissent is back. And it's winning.

In the last few weeks alone, campaigns at three schools forced commencement speakers to pass up significant speaker fees rather than face angry campuses. The last-minute cancellations have proved embarrassing to school leaders and have raised concerns about free speech and exposure to opposing views in settings designed to foster free thought.

And while the art of protesting commencement speakers is nothing new, it is on the rise. Greg Lukianoff, the president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, tracks data on protests. Since 1987, he said, there have been 148 instances in which students railed against potential commencement speakers. Of the 148 cases, about 100 took place in the past five years and resulted in 39 cancellations.

On Tuesday, Robert Birgeneau, the former chancellor at the University of California-Berkeley, was the latest to withdraw as a 2014 commencement speaker at Haverford College. Birgeneau is known as an advocate for minority and undocumented students. But during his tenure as chancellor, he came under fire for how Berkeley’s police force responded to Occupy protests in 2011.

Birgeneau’s decision came one day after International Monetary Fund managing director Christine Lagarde cancelled her May 18 appearance at Smith College, citing anti-IMF protests from faculty and students. On May 3, former National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice pulled the plug on her commencement speech at Rutgers University after student demonstrators protested against her role in the Iraq War in 2003.  Earlier this spring, students and faculty at Brandeis University forced the administration to withdraw plans to award an honorary degree to Somalia-born women’s rights activist Ayaan Hirsa Ali because of her controversial remarks about Islam and its treatment of women.

Other 2014 commencement speakers have been subject to student complaints but have not withdrawn from invitations. Those include Rap mogul Sean “Diddy” Combs, who spoke at Howard University last weekend; embattled New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie who will deliver remarks at Rowan University on Friday; former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg who is scheduled to speak at Harvard University on May 29,  and Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards, who will speak at Barnard College’s commencement ceremony on May 18.

Lukianoff, of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, credits the uptick in protests to a sense of empowerment by students and a relational sense on the part of administrators. Universities, he suggested, have adopted an attitude that “the customer is always right. If you’re paying $60,000 dollars a year, there’s a sense that ‘we have to cater to you.'"

"A “college campus is a place where ideas should be freely exchanged.” On the other hand, no school wants a right of passage overshadowed by “boycotts, chants and disruptions.”"'

Ken Paulson, president of the First Amendment Center and dean of the College of Mass Communication at Middle Tennessee State University, said campuses end up in a difficult position when protests erupt. A "college campus is a place where ideas should be freely exchanged.” On the other hand, no school wants a right of passage overshadowed by "boycotts, chants and disruptions.”

And speeches from unwanted guests can backfire. Then-New York City Policy Commissioner Ray Kelly was shouted off the stage during a speech at Brown University last year. An earlier effort to disinvite Kelly, long criticized over the NYPD’s controversial stop-and-frisk policy, had failed. 

Michael Rushmore, a 23-year-old senior at Haverford who spearheaded the college’s initiative to protest Birgeneau’s invitation, said his group did not have a problem with the chancellor coming to campus to speak. At issue, he said, was the fact that Haverford would have given Birgeneau an honorary degree in the process. A group of 50 students and faculty wrote a letter to Birgeneau insisting that he take responsibility for his actions during the Occupy protests as a condition for receiving the degree.

“We felt really uncomfortable hosting this guy, honoring a guy who in our minds symbolizes police brutality against non-violent protesters. Why would we reward him and help him whitewash his reputation?” asked Rushmore. 

Haverford President Daniel Weiss met with students earlier but a resolution could not be reached. He called Birgeneau "one of the most influential and important higher education leaders in our generation" and said the students' letter "read more like a jury issuing a verdict than as an invitation to discussion."

Rutgers’ French professor Francois Cornilliat, who protested Rice’s appearance, also said he would welcome the former secretary of state on campus for a debate or presentation. “But a commencement speech is not any old speech, it is an honor” that Rice is not worthy of. Students and their families attending graduation are a “captive audience. This is not a situation where you can discuss anything, ask questions, and challenge,” he said. 

Opinion over Lagarde backing out was very divided on Smith College's Facebook page. Lagarde is considered one of the world’s most powerful women who broke many glass ceilings. The 58-year-old French lawyer was the first woman to become finance minister of a G8 economy and is the first woman to head the IMF. But critics of the organization argue there is a lack of accountability there and that it has negative social and economic impacts on the countries it tries to help.

There have been speakers who managed to transcend dissent and even win over a grumbling campus.

In 1990, then First Lady Barbara Bush delivered a speech at Wellesley College despite protests from students angered that an invitation had been extended to someone whose official position was that of "spouse." Bush had dropped out of Smith College to marry the future president. But the crowd roared when Bush said, "Somewhere out in this audience may even be someone who will one day follow in my footsteps, and preside over the White House as the President's spouse -- and I wish him well."

In 1993, when gay Americans were banned from serving in the military, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell spoke at Harvard University. Some graduates held up signs that read “lift the ban” during his remarks. Before President Obama spoke at the University of Notre Dame, 65,000 people – angry over his support for abortion rights -- signed a petition objecting to his speech.