If Colleges Can't Handle Protests, Who Can?

After students at a few schools rejected their commencement speakers, they were widely mocked. What will this mean for campus communities—and a disillusioned class of 2014?

The petitions have been signed, the think pieces written, the commencement speeches finally  given. The class of 2014 has been launched into the world, to much fanfare—and an equal amount of firestorm.

In case you missed the controversy over this class’s graduation season, here’s what you need to know: Over the past month, students at several schools, including Rutgers, Brandeis, Smith, and Haverford, have voiced concerns with their scheduled commencement speakers in a series of online and in-person protests. Some colleges rescinded their invitations; at Smith and Haverford, the slated speakers—Christine Lagarde, the director of the International Monetary Fund, and Robert Birgeneau, the former chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley—decided to cancel their appearances.

Now, students, recent graduates, and administrators are facing a summer of recovery—and taking stock. Especially at the small liberal-arts colleges where speakers resigned, the  communities were deeply divided over the controversies. If history is any indication, this won’t be the last case of protest on college campuses; what will happen the next time students disagree with their administration?  Perhaps more importantly, what will happen to this graduating class as it moves from the rarefied halls of academia into an increasingly polarized world, where free speech isn’t always protected?

In many ways, the protests were the height of academic idealism: Students saw the speakers as symbols of their communities’ values. “By selecting Lagarde as the commencement speaker we are supporting the International Monetary Fund and thus going directly against Smith’s values to stand in unity with equality for all women, regardless of race, ethnicity or class,” the Smith students’ online petition reads. At Haverford, protestors wrote a letter directly to Birgeneau, asking that he apologize for the November 2011 police violence towards the Berkeley students involved in the Occupy Cal movement. But in response, Smith President Kathleen McCartney and Haverford President Dan Weiss both publicly expressed their worries about narrowness of student thought, and opinion piece after opinion piece denounced the students for their inability to tolerate intellectual diversity.

On both sides, this created widespread hurt and frustration. Students at Smith were dissatisfied with their president's response to an open letter they wrote, saying it did not directly address their concerns.* At Haverford, the situation was somewhat better: Staff members attended a community forum.

For their part, administrators were frustrated with losing the opportunity for their students to hear from important public figures—especially ones who they might have disagreed with. They said the strident tone of the protests wasn’t in keeping with academic inquiry—or conducive to debate.

The narratives in the media didn’t help, either. Liberal-leaning outlets covered the incidents as examples of students trespass against the free-speech rights of the speakers. And the talk on the right centered on the old complaint that higher education has a rampant liberal bias.

But beneath these critiques lies a helpful truth: If college communities can’t handle political disagreement, who can? The university is a sphere wholly dedicated to the search for truth and exploration of how the world does and should work. Theoretically, the academic community should be a model for discourse in the rest of the world, even if that’s often impossible to achieve.

For this to happen, students and administrators have to figure out how to move forward—and start to understand each other better. “One of the sentiments that became evident in our campus conversations was the extent to which the current generation of students feels a deep connection to the Occupy movement, the frustrations about our society that the movement activated, and the progressive values it continues to represent,” Weiss told me in an email. “We learned that our community has work to do in constructively engaging the inevitable moments of discord so we can move forward together.”

Students also said that their intentions have been somewhat misrepresented in the media—the Smithies I spoke with said they never intended to silence Lagarde. Her “withdrawal surprised me,” said Ifetayo Harvey, one of the leaders of the protests. “Our goals in protesting were to bring awareness to the Smith community about the harm the IMF has done to women in our communities.” Both Smith and Haverford student activists emphasize that any protests held during the speeches themselves would not have been disruptive: They intended to wear buttons and armbands, or turn around in their chairs. They said they would have heard what they speakers had to say; their administrations question whether they would have listened with open minds.

It’s also an open question whether commencement speeches are actually a forum for academic inquiry. “If Lagarde had been invited to give a lecture followed by questions or to participate in a panel, I would have had no issue with her coming to campus,” Kate Andropoulos, another Smith student, said. “A commencement speech is neither an academic space nor a forum for debate.”  Students at Smith and Haverford argue that a commencement speech—especially with the speaker receiving an honorary degree from the institution—is a symbol of university’s values. As Haverford student Sam Warren wrote , “I did not wish to see my own college reinforce the apathy toward violence that pervades much of our society and which surely contributed to the events at UC Berkeley.” President Weiss acknowledged the issue: “As protestors rightly pointed out this spring, it’s not just about bringing in a speaker who might say controversial things, which we do all the time; it’s about honoring that individual with a degree from the college. That sets a higher bar.”

In part, that means explaining the logic behind speaker selection, one thing that will definitely have to change in the future. Presidents McCartney and Weiss have pledged to start campus-wide conversations about the disputes next fall, although neither has specified what this will actually look like. But both presidents agree on one thing: The protests must go on. “The right to dissent—indeed, the moral obligation to give voice to dissent—is a core democratic value,” President Weiss said. “I am heartened that it is alive and well in this generation of students.” Hopefully, he and others at the head of universities will remember that taking dissent seriously is a hallmark of academia, if not a frequent real-world practice.

But as the class of 2014 goes out into the world, starting new jobs and taking their place in a much broader public sphere, that’s probably the message many will take away from this experience: disillusionment mixed with the idealism that has followed them throughout their academic experience . As Harvey, one of the Smith protestors, told me, “I now know that within institutions, businesses, and corporations alike, the dollar and status trumps everything.”

This post originally stated that Smith's president, Kathleen McCartney, never responded to an open letter presented by student protesters. We regret the error.