Thursday, April 2, 2015

First 2015 Commencement Speaker Disinvited

Probably one of the most challenging jobs in colleges today is finding a commencement speaker who doesn't irritate anybody.

In 2014, six chosen speakers were disinvited or declined invitations because they were unacceptable to students, administrators or outsiders.  (They are listed below.)

Disinvitation Season Begins

This year's first casualty is the Lonnie Rashid Lynn, who is better known as the hip-hop artist Common.  He was to speak at Kean University in Union, NJ.

Common was in the news because he and John Legend won this year's Academy Award for music for the song "Glory," was part of the movie Selma.  Here it is:

Anyway, back to Common's disinvitation.  The objection came from New Jersey police officers, for a song he wrote 15 years ago praising a woman convicted of killing a New Jersey State Policeman in a shootout.

The woman, Joanne Chesimard (also known as Assata Shakur), was a member of the Black Liberation Army in the early 1970s and was charged for bank robberies, armed robberies, kidnapping and several police shootings but was convicted only of the policeman's first-degree murder.  Those were strange times.

A few years after her conviction, Chesimard broke out of prison and, several years after that turned up in Cuba, where Fidel Castro welcomed her and gave her political asylum. Even after the opening of U.S. relations with Cuba, Cuba has said it will not extradite Chesimard.  She remains on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted Terrorists list, and there is a $2 million bounty on her head.

Common's Chesimard song, like "Glory", is consumed with the suffering of African Americans.  It completely takes her story at her word.  It is not surprising that the song enrages New Jersey officials.

Common is like many famous people.  He has been working in his field for many years, and not everyone is pleased with everything he has done.

Cancelled Commencement Speakers of 2014

Last year was a banner year for switching out named commencement speakers who proved unpopular with college students and, sometimes, administrators.

     -- Christine Lagarde, the head of the International Monetary Fund, was found not to be an inclusive enough feminist for the students at Smith College.

     -- Eric Lagrand, a Rutgers University alum who was paralyzed while playing in a Scarlet Knights football game, was ruled out for "political reasons" or because he was "not important enough."

     -- Condoleezza Rice, who was to replace Lagrand, was a "war monger."  Tom Kean, a former New Jersey governor, stepped in to fill the slot at a late moment.

     -- Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a feminist who criticized her native religion, Islam, was knocked out at Brandeis University for that critique.

     -- Robert Birgenau said no thanks to Haverford College's invitation after students demanded a written apology and other groveling for his handling of Occupy protests while he was chancellor at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2011.

     -- Pasadena City College turned away Dustin Lance Black, an alum and Oscar-winning screenwriter, after five-year old photos and videos were discovered showing him having sex with another man.

The year ended on a possibly brighter note.  The announcement of UC Berkeley's autumn commencement speaker, satirist Bill Maher, attracted 4,000 signatures on a petition to remove him because he did not always speak nicely about all Muslims.  The school said, "No dice," and Maher was allowed to speak in December.

Who knows what other commencement speakers will prove unacceptable this spring?

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