On Monday, reporters scrutinized the commencement ceremony at Wake Forest University, where Jill Abramson, the recently ousted New York Times executive editor, delivered a modest address. But to our minds, the bigger news this graduation season has been the large number of colleges and universities that have been impoverished by intolerance as student and faculty activists chased away public figures.
Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pulled out of speaking at Rutgers University following objections to her involvement in the Iraq war. International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde withdrew from offering an address at Smith College after a student petition protested the IMF’s “strengthening of imperialist and patriarchal systems that oppress and abuse women worldwide.”
Students and alumni at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education demanded that the school rescind its invitation to Colorado state Sen. Michael Johnston (D), because he “embraces a vision of education reform that relies heavily on test-based accountability.”
Haverford College lost the opportunity to hear from a leader in higher education when students and staff dissuaded Robert J. Birgeneau, former chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley, from addressing its graduates.
Activists at the Pennsylvania school objected to Birgeneau’s role in the forceful dispersion of a 2011 Occupy protest at Berkeley, and they sought to condition his appearance on his compliance with a series of “restorative” measures that included “a full accounting of one’s violation,” an open letter about “what you learned” and a “pledge to become a leader in how universities ensure that protesters’ rights are respected.” Instead of submitting a Soviet-style forced confession, Birgeneau declined to appear.
Haverford’s commencement ceremonies went on with a pinch-orator, former Princeton President William G. Bowen. Rather than shy from the controversy, Bowen on Sunday admirably defended the principles that some in attendance had renounced – the essential value of open debate and orderly disagreement.
“I am disappointed that those who wanted to criticize Birgeneau’s handling of events at Berkeley chose to send him such an intemperate list of ‘demands,’ ” Bowen said, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. “In my view, they should have encouraged him to come and engage in a genuine discussion, not to come, tail between his legs, to respond to an indictment that a self-chosen jury had reached without hearing counter-arguments.”
Responding to a student’s comment that keeping Birgeneau off campus was a “minor victory,” Mr. Bowen said, “I regard this outcome as a defeat, pure and simple, for Haverford – no victory for anyone who believes, as I think most of us do, in both openness to many points of view and mutual respect.”
Bowen also faulted Birgeneau for allowing himself to be cowed.
The Haverford mess is not the only or even the most upsetting example. Should we be encouraged that Harvard is turning out future educational leaders who take pride in blocking speech with which they might disagree? Commencement addresses should not be limited to quotations from Dr. Seuss and unremarkable advice to which no one could possibly object.
Good for Bowen, who declined to insult the intelligence of supposedly educated women and men by letting the loudest voices in the audience win.