Last year, President Obama delivered the commencement address to the 2013 graduating class at Morehouse College, a campus steeped in legacy. From the hallowed grounds of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s alma mater, President Obama’s deeply personal message about race, leadership and obstacles reverberated with an elevated poignancy at Morehouse. The crowd of young men on the cusp of their futures could have had no better speaker than the first black president of the United States, and his rousing message to overcome fear echoed Dr. King’s thoughts when King was a student there: “I realized that nobody…was afraid.”
College campuses do just that—nurture confidence in young Americans, afford them a space to express themselves and explore what is important to them, and instill in them a powerful voice, even if that voice calls for dissent. In his address, Obama spoke to the tremendous potential of courage in young college students: “here…young Martin learned to be unafraid. And he, in turn, taught others to be unafraid. And over time, he taught a nation to be unafraid.” It was during college, the president explained, that King was “introduced to the writings of Gandhi and Thoreau, and the theory of civil disobedience. It was here that professors encouraged him to look past the world as it was and fight for the world as it should be.”
If Dr. King’s fearlessness indeed found its wings during his time at Morehouse, this virtue was deservedly celebrated by our president. It was a lesson he hoped Morehouse graduates could glean inspiration from, and one that could surely resonate with college students across the country, especially since demonstrating courage on a college campus is becoming increasingly difficult. A report published earlier this year by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education found that nearly 60 percent of higher education institutions in the United States are institutionally suppressing free speech through codes that infringe on First Amendment protections.
When the president takes the stage in June to address graduates at the University of California, Irvine, he would be best served to take a hard look at last year’s Morehouse notes. UCI may not provide the same historic platform for the president that Morehouse did, but the UCI administration’s egregious blow to student rights in the “Irvine 11” episode is a dark mark that looms over the school’s abbreviated history—one that the president should not ignore.
On an otherwise humdrum September day in 2010, eleven students decided to interrupt Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren while he was giving a lecture on campus. In timely succession, the eleven students shouted to interrupt Oren but did not issue any threats and were escorted out without resistance. Oren was able to finish his speech. What followed will long be remembered as the onerous, punitive lesson a handful of students were forced to learn about the costs of dissent against Israel.