On this spring’s college commencement circuit, some of the most noteworthy names are those that didn’t make it to the podium. Although students have objected to their universities’ commencement speaker choices for years, in 2014 the protests and petitions had a pronounced effect.
On April 8, Brandeis University rescinded its invitation to Ayaan Hirsi Ali following growing objections, accompanied by a petition that garnered over 6,000 signatures. Ali, whose criticism of Islam many find intolerant and bigoted, was slated to speak and receive an honorary degree during the university’s May 18 commencement ceremony.
On May 3, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice declined her invitation to speak at Rutgers’ May 18 commencement in the wake of sustained protest by students focused on her role atop George W. Bush’s foreign policy apparatus. Students and faculty members alike had questioned the university’s decision since its February 8 announcement of Rice as speaker and honorary degree recipient. When she withdrew her agreement to speak, Rice wrote on her Facebook page that her invitation had “become a distraction for the university community.”
At Smith College, an online petition, protest and letters sent directly to IMF head Christine Lagarde led her to withdraw from speaking at the university’s commencement ceremonies less than ten days after Rice’s announcement. In their petition, students made clear they were uncomfortable with Lagarde not on a personal level but with her role as a representative of the IMF, an institution that, “has been a primary culprit in the failed developmental policies implanted in some of the world’s poorest countries.”
Most recently, former UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau withdrew from his planned speech and honorary degree at Haverford after students and faculty members sent him a letter asking him to publicly apologize for his handling of a violent police breakup of a peaceful 2011 Occupy protest at Berkeley.
While these withdrawals have garnered much media attention of late, the student protest efforts have been portrayed as infantile and misdirected. Students have been accused of being unwilling to entertain views that conflict with their own, of acting like “young thought police” and impeding free speech.