The list of high-profile public figures declining or being disinvited from commencement speaking engagements has grown exponentially. It has been reported that not only have approximately 25 speakers withdrawn or been disinvited since 2012, but twice as many speakers experienced the public embarrassment of a commencement address cancellation or invitation withdrawal in the past five and a half years than in the six-year period prior.
This phenomenon of “disinvitation season” is being driven by student and faculty protests at institutions across the country. A few examples from this year include:
· Smith College – International Monetary Fund (IMF) managing director Christine Lagarde withdrew her commencement address invitation in response to an online petition and criticism she said she received from Smith College students and staff, citing their opposition to her role in IMF’s “damaging influence” on developing countries.
· Rutgers University – Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also withdrew after students and faculty protested, citing her role in the Iraq War.
· Haverford College – Students and faculty not only protested his presence on campus, but they demanded that former UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau apologize for the way campus police treated Occupy Wall Street protesters on his campus in 2011.
There are at least two obvious, yet opposing attitudes behind this complex issue.
On the one hand, you have what some would view as a triumph in the context of academic freedom in higher education. The ability of students and faculty to respectfully express their opposition to commencement speakers without fear of reprisal is a testament to the freedom of expression that characterizes intellectual spaces.
An alumna of Smith College penned a letter in The Chronicle of Higher Education where she noted that since students essentially “have no recourse to meaningful and respectful debate” with commencement speakers to whom they object, students who protest should be applauded for charting their own course and exemplifying values instilled in them by their institution.
On the other hand, you have what some view as an attack on the exchange of diverse opinions that should characterize intellectual spaces. Many observers have suggested that these protests demonstrate an unwillingness of some students and faculty to hear from individuals with differing perspectives and create a standard that Greg Lukianoff says makes it “difficult to find anyone you could invite to speak who has done anything interesting with their lives.”
Whether one’s opinion regarding these matters falls neatly on one side of the debate or somewhere in the middle, a point of agreement may be the fact that these incidents seem to bring into question whether there are more effective approaches to navigating the entire process of selecting commencement speakers and responding to concerns of students and faculty.
It is hard to ignore the fact that digital platforms have played a major role in the successful commencement speaker protests, where online petitions and social media outlets have proven influential methods of communication among students in particular. It seems appropriate then that administrators meet the students where they are: online. Some examples of what that might look like are provided in the following points.
It should be acknowledged that securing a commencement speaker is no simple task. The process requires thoughtful planning well in advance of the actual commencement ceremony and college leaders must carefully negotiate the needs of a variety of stakeholders, both internal and external. Therefore, I am not suggesting that all of these instances could have been easily avoided, but I do question whether some proactive steps could have been taken to prevent them from escalating to the level at which speakers declined invitations or were disinvited. Below I provide a few suggestions that may be worthy of consideration in future commencement endeavors.
o To the extent that it is logistically feasible to implement a democratic process, event coordinators should include students and faculty in the selection and invitation of commencement speakers. Technology has made this increasingly easier to accomplish and could be as easy as extending an invitation for the campus community to engage on social media or providing an opportunity to vote using polling software.
o Student and faculty involvement in the selection/invitation process alone will not sufficiently address the issue, though. It is impossible to please everyone and there will always be potential for protest. As with student and faculty participation on the front end of the process, the responsibility falls on the administration to devise communication strategies that not only create transparency, but also engage the campus community in dialogue around the intellectual benefits of diverse perspectives being represented. Again, this can be done using technology or using more traditional methods such as interactive town hall meetings, but regardless of the method I believe it is critical that students have opportunities to have their concerns or opinions validated.
This recent history of protests and the backlash that followed has serious implications for higher education on many levels. If the current trend continues, potential commencement speakers may view invitations to speak at commencement as a hassle instead of an honor; politicians may interpret these successful protests as anti-intellectual or ideological attacks that justify their steadily declining support for higher education; and higher education administrators may become discouraged by the perpetual opposition and uncertainty, and may believe that the pursuit of notable public figures is too burdensome.
Admittedly, I would be deeply disappointed if those potential outcomes became reality. I was privileged enough to have two dynamic, trailblazing women (renowned poet Nikki Giovanni and First Lady Michelle Obama) deliver inspirational and memorable speeches as my commencement speakers, and I would hate for future college students to lose out on the opportunity to learn from people with such meaningful life experiences. Ironically, it seems as though in order to maintain this tradition, new non-traditional approaches may be necessary.
What other ways can college campuses address these issues? Share your thoughts below or on Twitter using the #RPI hashtag.
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