Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Commencement Speakers Just Say No

New School, 2006
In 2006, Sen. John McCain was the keynote speaker at that year's New School commencement ceremonies.  Things did not go well.

The 21-year-old speaker who preceded McCain rewrote her planned speech and instead spoke of how she deplored him.  Audience members waved signs and banners in protest.  There were boos and heckles.  At least one person shouted that McCain was a war criminal.

Since then, students have been very picky about commencement speakers, among others.  In return, commencement speakers have become picky about campuses they are willing to visit.

When a college selects a speaker whose job or politics are unpopular with student activists, the activists swing into action. Booing and heckling are promised.  Boycotts are threatened.  Petitions are drawn up and circulated.  The invited speakers, who like most folks don't want to go where they're not wanted, bow out.

This year's decliners include former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at Rutgers (students objected to her tenure during the Iraq War), International Monetary Fund chair Christine Lagarde at Smith College (bad historical IMF policies), and feminist activist and Muslim critic Ayan Hirsi Ali at Brandeis.

In 2013, Swarthmore alumnus Robert Zoellick bowed out as speaker at that school's commencement and declined an honorary degree; students objected chiefly to his work at the World Bank, but also at Fannie Mae and Goldman Sachs.  Also last year, Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon Benjamin Carson declined to give the commencement address at that university's medical school when objections were raised to his opposition to gay marriage.

This year's most recent "No, thanks" came from Robert J. Birgeneau, the former chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, and an advocate for the rights of undocumented immigrants, minorities and gay students.  He had been scheduled to speak at Haverford College, a fine school in Pennsylvania.

Rober J. Birgenau
The objection to Birgenau involved his handling in 2011 of Occupy protests at UC.   Before the protests, he announced that classes and research would continue on the day of a scheduled demonstration and that the pitching of Occupy tents would not be allowed on campus.

On the demonstration day, 1,500 protestors showed up at the campus.  (It's never difficult to raise a loud and unruly protest crowd in the Bay Area.)  Local and campus police, outnumbered by more than 10 to one, appeared with sticks and beanbag guns, arrested a number of resisting protesters and frustrated efforts to set up an Occupy tent city on the campus.  The next week, the Occupy group called a lightly observed general strike day at the university.

The Haverford dissenters to Birgenau's speech said they would cancel their objections if Birgenau met eight requirements.  These included issuing a formal apology, supporting "reparations for the victims" and sending Haverford a letter explaining his position on the Occupy events and "what you learned from them."

It appears that Birgenau read the demands and said to himself, who needs this?  He cancelled in a brief note to the college.

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