The poet Robert Frost once called college “a refuge from hasty judgment.” What it’s not is a refuge from all contrary opinions. This year, there’s been a disturbing pattern of commencement speakers bowing out under pressure from students and faculty who simply dislike their views. Christine Lagarde, the first woman to head the International Monetary Fund, was supposed to speak at Smith College, but nearly 500 people signed an online petition asserting that the IMF is a “primary culprit” in pushing “imperialist and patriarchal systems that oppress and abuse women worldwide.” Lagarde pulled out earlier this week, as she put it in a statement, “to preserve the celebratory spirit of commencement day.” Also this week, Robert Birgeneau, former chancellor of the University of California Berkeley, declined his commencement address invitation at Haverford College outside Philadelphia after some students and faculty condemned his handling of campus protests in 2011.
These incidents followed the withdrawal earlier this month of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as commencement speaker at Rutgers, after student protests and a faculty council resolution denouncing her role in the Iraq war. Similar complaints prompted the withdrawal of former Bush administration official and World Bank president Robert Zoellick from speaking at Swarthmore College. In all cases, would-be speakers were shooed away for their views on issues about which reasonable people can disagree.
According to an informal tally by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, the number of withdrawals is rising. More liberal speakers have attracted protests, too: President Obama spoke at at Notre Dame in 2009 despite protests over his prochoice stance; Anna Maria College withdrew an invitation to Victoria Reggie Kennedy in 2012 over the prochoice and progay marriage positions that she shared with her late husband, Senator Edward M. Kennedy. But it’s notable that most of the recent withdrawals have been forced by left-leaning factions on campuses priding themselves on diversity.
It’s far better for students to counter speech with more speech. Instead, on the very day students are launched into the “real world,” a vocal minority would prefer to fend off speakers who’ve struggled with the complexity and contradictions that come with any high-level career.
No matter what one thinks about developing countries’ debt or Bush-era foreign policy, Lagarde and Rice have instructive stories to tell — including about their climbs to power against gender or racial barriers. Birgeneau’s withdrawal deprives Haverford students of a fuller narrative, one that includes him securing a large donation to increase financial aid for undocumented students. Students and faculty who censor commencement speakers may win silence for a day. But they lose much more.