This graduation season was marked by criticism of the selection of speakers at many colleges. This is not unusual. What seemed more pronounced in this cycle was the ferocity of the response. Most shocking to me was the response of Stephen Carter, a Yale Law professor, who used a hypothetical graduation podium to present a bombastic, sarcastic diatribe in which he berated the graduates for censorship, lack of reflection, and intolerance. http://www.bloombergview.com/articles/2014-05-15/dear-class-of-2014-thanks-for-not-disinviting-me. Similarly, Damon Linker complains of the lazy moralism of academia and regards the objections to the selection of Condoleezza Rice on the ground that she approved of torture as “academic moral grandstanding.” http://theweek.com/article/index/261515/the-lazy-moralism-of-liberal-college-politics. Whatever the merits of the policies embraced by Rice, Linker opines that speakers like her should not be “excommunicated, ignored, or banished from public life” (as if criticism of her selection banished her from public life).
One of the common themes of these essays is that the protests against Rice and others betrays the university’s commitment to free and open debate.
I leave to the side the more bizarre of these complaints. Criticism of the selection of graduation speakers is itself free speech, not censorship. The complaint that protests about speakers like Rice lack reflection or involve moral grandstanding say more about Carter and Linker than they do about those they protest. Characterizing those who object to the honoring of a supporter of torture through the invitation of speaking at a graduation as involved in moral grandstanding leaves one to wonder whether the moral compass of Carter and Linker took the day off.
Most problematic is the assumption of Carter and Linker that graduation speeches are no different from the day to day open debate that flourishes in a university. A graduation is a day of celebration for the graduates. It is a day for looking back at the past and being inspired for the future. It demands so far as possible the presence of a speaker that all can embrace.
You might think from this that I do not think partisan politicians should be invited to speak at graduations, and you would be exactly right. If they are invited, they should be cautioned to be sensitive to the pluralism of views held by the graduates.
I am proud of the fact that I have been twice selected by students to speak at law school graduations. I am well aware that my views of law and politics are well to the left of the graduates I would ever address. On those two occasions, it did not occur to me to press my controversial views on the graduates (though it seemed inappropriate to hide those views from my students during classroom debates and discussions).
Graduation day is not a day for political debate. The graduates can be called upon to reflect on their past and future without the selection of polarizing speakers. The selection of high profile politicians may draw headlines for universities; sometimes those selections curry political favor; they may please many of the graduates; but they do not honor the diversity of the students who graduate.