By Andrew Pillow
Late May to early June is the most wonderful time of the year to be an educator. Not only are you getting ready for your summer vacation, but you also get the rare opportunity to see the fruits of your labor. You have the pleasure of seeing your students walk across the stage in their cap and gown. You get to see their families come together and celebrate their long, hard academic journey. And if you are REALLY lucky…. You get to see your favorite politician booed mercilessly by the student body.
The latter is a rather new part of the graduation tradition. But I suspect it will soon become just as ubiquitous as Pomp and Circumstance. Particularly if college administrators don’t learn an important lesson: Commencement ceremonies are for students, not politicians.
This may seem like common sense to most, but given recent controversies surrounding commencement speakers and the subsequent backlash, it would appear as if some institutions of higher learning have not yet figured this out.
Rather it’s Betsy DeVos booed for the entirety of her speech at Bethune-Cookman, or Mike Pence causing a walk-out at Notre Dame, many universities are having to deal with the consequences of selecting controversial speakers for their graduation ceremony.
This is a very easy problem to fix. Select speakers that aren’t controversial.
In the aftermath of the commencement speech controversies the conservative blogosphere predictably lit up with think pieces about how college students are “snowflakes”, how college campuses are “too liberal” and “intolerant” of right-wing views and so on and so forth. All of those things may actually be true. However, those criticisms are misplaced because this conversation boils down to one point: Time and place.
Colleges have the right to invite whatever controversial speakers they want all year long. And they often do. It is perfectly reasonable for people to bemoan the treatment of controversial speakers in these situations. They are usually brought in specifically to talk about whatever polarizing ideas they have, and as many people have pointed out over the last few weeks, that is one of the things college is for… and rather liberals like it or not, it is usually the appropriate forum.
A commencement is NOT the appropriate forum. Commencement speeches are given to captive audiences who are simply expecting to hear some meaningful anecdotes, and general life advice before graduates walk across the stage. It’s not the time for Mike Pence’s hot takes on everything he thinks is wrong with college.
Universities do have a tough balancing act. High profile speakers can often bring prestige and donations. Plus, it’s hard to find a politician that everyone agrees with. But seriously, we can do better than a former governor who prior to November 8th was most known for passing a controversial anti-LGBT law and a woman who thinks HBCUs arose from “choice”. Lots of politicians gave commencement speeches this year and they didn’t all generate the same heat that those two did.
Note: “Controversial” varies from campus to campus. President Trump gave a commencement speech this graduation season too. That probably would have been pretty controversial at the University of Berkeley, but he gave it at Liberty University who seemed perfectly fine with his rhetoric… and that’s okay. Elizabeth Warren probably wouldn’t have many fans at Hillsdale College, so it’s a good thing her commencement speech was given at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The point is schools should make an effort to find a speaker that their student body would approve of.
Universities and colleges of course don’t have to listen to me. They have the right to select whatever speaker they want, on whatever grounds they want. But they should be advised: Students take a more active role in speeches these days. If you select a controversial speaker you should expect a controversial reaction, and in my opinion, administrators should be okay with that.
Every institution of higher learning aspires to create independent, critical thinking students. They can’t turn around and be mad that that’s what they got.