The Case for Protesting Your Commencement Speaker

These students aren't silencing debate. They're creating it.

DALLAS - NOVEMBER 16: Former Secretary of State Condolezza Rice addresses the audience during the George W. Bush Presidential Center groundbreaking ceremony on November 16, 2010 in Dallas, Texas. The George W. Bush Presidential Center is a state-of-the-art complex that will include former President George W. Bush's presidential library and museum, the George W. Bush Policy Institute, and the offices of the George W. Bush Foundation.  (National Journal)

This week college students incensed the Internet by having the audacity to publicly oppose their commencement speakers. The list of spurned speakers includes former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the head of the International Monetary Fund, and the ex-chancellor of the University of California (Berkeley).

The Daily Beast framed the conversation thusly: "The oh-so-fragile class of 2014 needs to STFU and listen to some new ideas." The Week called it an example of "the lazy moralism of liberal college politics." And Vox pegged it as part of a larger debate about "the reemergence of an 'anti-liberal left' that values social justice more than free speech and inquiry."

Actually those outlets, and many others, have got it backwards. These speakers weren't opposed on a whim. Rather students, and in some cases faculty, felt the invitees had specific aspects of their records to answer for, and a rote commencement speech seldom brings serious political debate.

At Rutgers University, students and faculty objected to Rice's involvement in the Iraq War. As national security adviser in the George W. Bush administration, Rice was a big proponent of the 2003 invasion and, for anyone who needs a refresher, penned an editorial in The New York Times entitled "Why We Know Iraq Is Lying" about its weapons of mass destruction.

Perhaps then it's understandable why, looking back at this, some at Rutgers were uncomfortable honoring her legacy at their college commencement.

Yet The Week dismissed any objection as "a longing to simplify the world, to wish away our conflicts and deny the need to get one's hands dirty." Dissent was framed as the inevitable miscalculation of kids who haven't "learned their lesson" and are "too young to have seen the need to put away their childish things."

The Iraq War resulted in more than 110,000 violent deaths. What childish things beyond their idealism must these students put away?

At Haverford College students and faculty had questions for a former University of California chancellor about the treatment of Occupy protesters in the fall of 2011. Haverford was founded in 1833 to ensure an education grounded in Quaker values, and the Quaker influence on campus is still strong. If students there didn't have any questions about the use of force on peaceful student protesters, they wouldn't be living up to their mission.

And at Smith, students objected to receiving their education capstone speech from Christine Lagarde, chief of the IMF, charging that the organization, in providing economic aid to poor nations, has imposed conditions that favor Western nations and strengthen oppressive regimes. It's an interesting, somewhat complicated criticism, and Lagarde is in a position to offer up intelligent answers. Instead, she withdrew from the ceremony so as not to distract from the celebration.

Lagarde's response was similar to Rice's when she opted to back out of her commencement engagement at Rutgers. "Rutgers' invitation to me to speak has become a distraction for the university community at this very special time," Rice explained.

It's understandable if speakers want to spare themselves the discomfort of engaging with critics, but it's also a good reminder of just how little interest they have in sparking provocative political debate. And it's another reason why The Daily Beast, in writing lines like, "God forbid these delicate students should be exposed to an idea or an organization with which they disagree," is missing the point.

These speakers are not being silenced. They decided to withdraw when it looked like the attention they would be receiving would not be entirely flattering. Rather than have a conversation about it, they fled.

It's also part of what makes Vox's framing of the issue so off base. "When conservatives are back in power ... the left will rediscover the importance of protecting unpopular opinions," Michelle Goldberg, a journalist with The Nation, tells Vox.

It's an interesting conversation, but it has little to do with the topic of protesting commencement speakers. These speakers are not some poor oppressed minority just trying to offer colleges students a thought-provoking argument or different political outlook. Rather they are some of the most powerful people in the free world who have come to collect laurels and offer up platitudes about success and navigating life after college. They are not taking questions. Commencement lectures are a one-way, often dull street.

The Vox piece eventually acknowledges that protests against commencement speakers are not really a good example of the so-called "anti-liberal left" that Goldberg has written about. But the revelation is buried more than 1,000 words in.

Slate, in a column entitled "Elite College Students Protest Their Elite Commencement Speakers," suggests these students are simply overly entitled because they purportedly want their commencements to be both high in profile and rich in personal meaning. Where exactly is the evidence that the students who object to the political histories of these people are really just holding their breath until Ryan Gosling appears? They have substantive complaints that deserve answers and airspace. Also, comparing the elite status of someone like Condoleezza Rice to a random protester at Rutgers is just silly.

The greatest irony of all is that these student protesters whom the internet has so loudly decried have already won. These stories just created infinitely more debate and breadth of opinion than simply rolling over and listening to one more commencement speaker offer up more of the same about how if you just put your head down, sheepishly follow the rules, and don't question the conventional wisdom of powerful people, your life will come out totally fine. And utterly uninteresting.