This year’s epidemic of commencement speaker dis-invitations has produced plenty of finger-wagging among civil libertarians and thoughtful educators. Quite rightly they lament the lack of courage among university administrators to stand up to politically correct activists intent on chasing off speakers they dislike.
But what they fail to see is that the fundamental problem is neither pusillanimous presidents nor political correctness.
The problem is the institution of commencement speeches. If college presidents really had courage, they would get rid of the outside commencement speaker altogether. And while they are at it, they would stop handing out honorary degrees at commencement.
The first problem with celebrity commencement speeches is their vacuousness. As a lifelong professional academic, I have attended dozens of graduation ceremonies and presided over 21 of them. Not once have I heard a commencement speech worthy of the intellectual attainments of the graduating class. Year after year, I would sit listening to the usual formulaic advice about being true to your passions, resisting the lure of power or greed, taking time to smell the roses. And I would think: These are students who spent hundreds of hours mastering differential calculus, quantum mechanics, Kant’s ethics, Shakespeare’s histories. What an insult to their achievement to cap off their college years with such a bucket-full of platitudes!
But the biggest problem with celebrity speakers — and for that matter, celebrity honorary degrees — is that they detract from the true purpose of the ceremony. Commencement is an occasion to celebrate the accomplishments of students who have worked hard for years to earn academic degrees. The event should focus exclusively on them, not a bunch of celebrities whose only connection to the graduates is their willingness to show up on campus for a few hours on a May day. There are surely times for a university to listen to such people — and to honor such people. But commencement is not one of them. Invite celebrities to campus during the academic year, when the entire student body can benefit from whatever wisdom they choose to share. But leave commencement to those whose careers are commencing.
Some schools resist the temptation to turn commencement into a celebrity-fest. At my alma mater, Amherst College, on whose board of trustees I sat for 12 years, the college president gives the commencement address. At Reed College, where I was president for 10 years, we didn’t award honorary degrees and the commencement speaker was always a graduate of the college. These are steps in the right direction. But if we really want to decontaminate commencement, we should make it be exclusively for and by the students. Have two or three student speakers, drawn from different disciplines. Have student musicians provide the musical interludes. Have student artists display their creations. Give prizes for student theses.
But, please, tell the celebrities to come back another day, when they — and their activist opponents — can be the focus of attention.