Disinvitation season has come and gone. In this year’s enactment of a now familiar exercise, Haverford, Rutgers, and Brandeis, among other other schools, were forced by opposition for students and faculty to alter plans for commencement speakers.
Parallel denunciations of creeping authoritarianism are part of the ritual. But the truth is that critics of the university on both the left and the right get what they really want out of these tiny fiascos: an opportunity to make vehement public statements when little of significance is at stake. Because commencement addresses are, with a few notable exceptions, emissions of immense quantities of hot air. Here are the deep thoughts with which Rice favored the graduates of Southern Methodist University in 2012.
Rather than lamenting the arrogance of administrators or immaturity of students, it’s worth considering how to reform the institution of commencement speeches altogether. After all, there’s no requirement that university import boldface names. Columbia, for example, allows only its president to speak. So here are some suggestions for preventing future commencements from becoming occasions for embarassing disinvitations.
First, give students a role in choosing speakers. This would help gauge potential controversy early in the selection process, as well as building a constituency for the choice. One reason it’s so easy for a relatively small group of critics to push out a speaker is that the rest of the student body has no stake in keeping him. Allowing them to exercise some influence over the initial decision could change that.
But maybe students would use their influence to pick popular culture figures rather than serious types that convince parents and taxpayers that their money is well-spent. That risk could be avoided if universities stopped paying large honoraria. If potential speakers have something important to say, they’ll be willing to do so in exchange for reasonable expenses. Don’t subsidize celebrities—or high-priced “thought leaders” flogging their books.
Next, separate the conferral of honorary degrees from speechgiving. The former implies collective endorsement of the speaker’s career. The latter does not. One of Rod’s readers claims that Haverford opponents of Berkeley chancellor Robert Birgeneau objected to his honorary degree more they did to his speaking invitation. Whether that’s true in this case, there’s a morally and political relevant difference between hearing someone out and allowing an honor to be given in one’s own name.
Finally, revive the old practice of allowing a student elected by students to speak at commencement. This would allow students to express criticism or disapproval of other speakers in precisely the kind of dialogue that both lefties and conservatives claim to endorse.
Any or all of these suggestions would help prevent silly controversies without giving in to the heckler’s veto. But maybe the best solution would be to cancel the speeches altogether. Does anyone really want to be lectured in the inevitable commencement weather of blistering sun or pouring rain?