This past Sunday marked a special day in the lives of many young adults as they graduated from the graduate and undergraduate degree programs of thousands of accredited American higher education institutions. If you were unaware, you need only check Instagram newsfeeds for a bombardment of images of graduates celebrating their final moments of collegiate life. Watching the news, however, will demonstrate a much less positive aspect of this year’s graduating classes than the smiling #selfies on Facebook. A growing trend of liberal intolerance towards graduation speakers has cast a dark shadow on this year’s commencements and the future of higher education. Due to protests by both students and professors at several universities, many bright, knowledgeable and acclaimed leaders of the political and business worlds have opted not to appear at the graduations to which they were originally invited, or have been uninvited altogether.
Rather than debasing the speakers, as the protesters might hope, these actions largely discredit the universities, both in terms of their intellectual prestige and their professionalism. A student is clearly not ready to enter the professional world if they are willing to “protest the war in Iraq” by openly rejecting former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice from delivering a commencement address.
While Rice’s experiences as a minority woman with an illustrious career in American politics make her perfectly qualified to deliver an address to a liberal arts institution like Rutgers University, the protests caused Rice to decline her invitation to this year’s commencement. When these Rutgers students of the Class of 2014 were finishing their freshman year back in April 2011, however, the Rutgers University Programming Association paid $32,000 to bring Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi of “Jersey Shore” fame to campus to speak to students, according to the New York Post. While turning away the first female black Secretary of State when just three years ago they welcomed the first American to get trashed and arrested in a foreign country on television could certainly tarnish their reputation, these embarrassing decisions are becoming a trend.
Another big story of this year’s graduation controversies happened at Smith College, when commencement speaker Christine Lagarde announced that she would not be attending the institution’s graduation ceremony for similar reasons as Rice. Lagarde had been fervently protested by Smith faculty and students for her position as the International Money Fund (IMF) managing director, according to MSNBC. While Lagarde could potentially have given a powerful address, the professors and students at Smith condemned her as an individual due to her short-term association with the IMF.
Today’s students often take the greatest offense to the smallest of things. For instance, Sen. Michael Johnston, the commencement speaker for the Harvard Graduate School of Education, was protested by students because of a minor political standpoint he held — he “embraces a vision of education reform that relies heavily on test-based accountability while weakening the due process protections of teachers.” In spite of previous political decisions defending teachers, the graduate students at Harvard submitted a written proposal to have Johnston removed from the ceremony and to more scrupulously screen graduation speakers, according to the Washington Post. It is a wonder that, in this nation of polarizing issues and intellectual hostility, there remain any viable college speakers of importance at all. The commencement speaker at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, Sheryl WuDunn, even prefaced her address by saying, “Thank you for inviting me here, or rather thank you for not disinviting me.”
The New York Times and Los Angeles Times reported that similar situations occurred at Haverford College in Pennsylvania and Pasadena City College in California. Also in the news was the commencement speaker this year for the graduating class of the Oklahoma City Police Academy, who had been threatened by right-wing gun supporters for his position on gun ownership. Timothy Egan of The New York Times said, “the lefty thought police at Smith, Haverford and Rutgers share one thing with the knuckle-dragging hard right in Oklahoma: They’re afraid of hearing something that might spoil a view of the world they’ve already figured out.”
Though all of the uninvited or disheartened speakers this year hold controversial positions within America’s social, political, business and collegiate systems, the task that they were originally contacted to perform — the commencement address — is far from a propaganda technique. Rather, each and every one of these professionals would have offered advice to the students, families and faculty with tact. They would have tried to inspire the excited and scared former students, and they probably could have done so a bit more competently than Snooki, who gave Rutgers students this piece of advice: “Study hard, but party harder!”