This spring, left-leaning college students across the country are stepping up their activist efforts by pressuring graduation speakers to decline invitations and refuse honorary degrees as punishment for their lack of adherence to progressive values. Former National Security adviser and Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice declined to speak at Rutgers University after students and faculty protested her involvement in the Iraq War. A week earlier, Christine Lagarde, CEO of the International Monetary Fund, withdrew as a commencement speaker at Smith College after protests on campus, which included an online petition with nearly 500 names calling the IMF “a primary culprit in the failed developmental policies in some of the world’s poorest countries.” And this week, former chancellor at the University of California at Berkeley Robert J. Birgineau, is the latest to bow out of an honorary degree and a speaking slot at Haverford.
The charges against Birgineau involved the excessive force police used against the Occupy movement on Berkeley’s campus three years ago. Haverford’s students wrote a letter to Dr. Birgineau, demanding public recompense for the use of violence in the demonstrations: “Your brief apology … is inadequate. While you say that you ‘sincerely apologize for the events of November 9 … it seems you do not want to admit any wrongdoing or take responsibility in court.” The letter concluded with a list of demands that Birgineau meet, including admitting his own involvement in the alleged police brutality. Nearly 50 students and three faculty members signed the letter. Summarily dismissing guests for perceived slights is not only immature, but is harmful to both the student’s educational experience and long-term universities’ relationships with high-level organizations.
This is a new low for the politically correct left, which is adding demands for public repentance to its roster of activist tools. But while these soon-to-be college graduates may be scoring political points against institutions’ alleged friendliness towards oppression, they are unwittingly depriving themselves of one the benefits of their increasingly-expensive education: the opportunity to hear the perspectives of those with whom they may disagree. In time, they may ultimately appreciate the difficulties that come with making decisions in leadership roles, even if they disagree with the outcome.
The president of my alma mater, Wesleyan University, alluded to this in a column he wrote earlier this week about knee-jerk criticism that fails to properly engage content. “In the last half-century, though, emphasis on inquiry has become dominant, and it has often been reduced to the ability to expose error and undermine belief. The inquirer has taken the guise of the sophisticated (often ironic) spectator, rather than the messy participant in continuing experiments or even the reverent beholder of great cultural achievements.” (Emphasis added) The student’s job is now to expose and demand retribution. Intellectual inquiry has been supplanted by a crusade for social justice, making the pursuit of truth increasingly irrelevant.
Rice and Lagarde, however controversial their politics, are female world leaders in the age of globalization, a time of complexity and nuance. Birgineau was thrust into the spotlight by managing a country-wide movement that began in Zucotti Park. It’s not easy to know if you are making the right decisions as you’re making them. Even if these leaders made misguided decisions in their tenure—a pitfall that all leaders make, irrespective of political affiliation—then it is important for the next generation know what mistakes they can avoid. If the IMF caused poverty, how did it do so, and how can we prevent that from happening again? What lessons can be learned from the Occupy movement? Was it successful?
These students are completely missing the forest for the trees. Blinded by progressive idealism and committed to purging those who trespass their moral code, these college students are only succeeding in ridding their campuses of the meaningful dialogue that would bridge the gaps they claim to be fighting.