Each year, graduates of our nation’s colleges and universities participate in an ancient ritual known as “commencement.” They don medieval garb and participate in a ceremony designed to honor their accomplishments and be celebrated by their final “teacher”, the famed “commencement speaker.”
For any incumbent university or college president, the choice of such speakers is one of the most difficult faced in the course of the academic year. The very diversity of individuals, opinions and policy perspectives which makes for a vibrant, robust higher education learning environment, also guarantees some controversy around any particular individual chosen to be the embodiment of their institution on this critical day in the lives of the graduates. Best, certainly, to involve students in the decision - and, so we did during the thirteen years I served as a university president, here in the US and in Canada. Protests from vocal opponents still occurred, but they occurred in the context of an inclusive process of selection.
The discussions this year surrounding the numerous withdrawals of commencement speakers following student and faculty protests were especially heated. A number of very well-known and –in many circles- well-respected commencement speakers withdrew to avoid becoming, in the words of one such speaker designee, former Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, “… a distraction for the university community at this very special time.”
Whether the decision of the invited speaker or a “polite” suggestion by the host college or university, I don’t remember a time when more high-profile commencement speaker designees changed prior to the ceremony for which they were selected; this truly became, as Greg Lukianoff, President of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, put it, a “disinvitation” season. From the chief of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde, to Condoleezza Rice, former Secretary of State to Robert J. Birgeneau, former Chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley, and on and on, protests have arisen over particular policy positions each has taken. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a public figure who has not, at some time in their career, proposed a course of action or expressed a point of view which was counter to the beliefs of some portion of the citizenry.
The real question we as leaders of institutions of higher education need to ask is whether someone chosen for the honor of addressing our graduates represents, in their world view and in the totality of their career, the core values of our institution. Do they exemplify the habits of mind and the strengths of character we espouse? If they do, I would submit that, despite vocal protests from the few, or even the many, they should be celebrated by the institution and remain on the commencement podium.
Individuals have attempted to cast this discussion in terms of political correctness run amok, conservative versus liberal, liberal versus conservative, a tyranny of the vocal minority, violation of the First Amendment or, simply, a weakness of institutional leadership. I would submit that it is none of the above. Rather, these events represent the consequences of not placing the fulfillment of institutional values above all other considerations. If a potential speaker, in the minds of a representative group of students, faculty and administrators, embodies institutional values, they should be embraced and supported; certainly not “disinvited” if the going gets tough due to the actions of a minority faction of vocal protestors. Likewise, the speakers need to be willing to, yes, speak to the backs of those that oppose some of the actions they have taken. Such courage will deliver a powerful message to all of the graduates, one that will be remembered long after the particular words of the commencement speech fade from their memories.
Dr. Karen Hitchcock, Special Advisor in the consulting firm, Park Strategies, LLC, was President of the University at Albany, State University of New York, from 1996-2004, after which she went on to lead Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. Dr. Hitchcock has received honorary degrees from Albany Medical College and from her alma mater, St. Lawrence University. She has served on numerous regional and national committees and task forces dealing with issues in higher education, research and economic development. While at both the University at Albany and Queen’s University, she co-hosted the popular WAMC program, “The Best of our Knowledge”.
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