IMF Director Christine Lagarde’s withdrawal as Smith College’s commencement speaker is the latest in a series of high-profile commencement follies aptly described by Harvard’s Ruth Wisse as “The Closing of the Collegiate Mind.” The heckler’s veto, displayed preemptively, is in full force across college campuses that are supposed to be settings in which ideas could be fully and freely discussed.
As someone who has participated in more college commencements than he’d care to remember, and who has written and delivered an honorary doctorate citation for a political figure with whom he quite vehemently disagreed, I think I have some advice for my colleagues on other campuses.
In the first place, we have to remember that colleges and universities are institutions governed by rules and procedures. Encouraging students (and, unfortunately, faculty) to respect and adhere to these rules and procedures is—or ought to be—an important part of what transpires behind the ivy-covered walls. Not to uphold those rules and procedures only contributes to a collapse of order and civility on college campuses. This makes learning impossible and defeats the purpose of higher education. In these cases in particular, there is everywhere a process whereby commencement speakers are chosen. It likely varies in formality and transparency from place to place, but I suspect that in many cases faculty (or their representatives) are at least consulted, as they certainly must be if a degree is to be awarded. Those who have the authority and responsibility to make these decisions—whether it be senior administrators, Boards of Trustees, or faculty committees, or some combination thereof—need courageously to stick up for their procedures and defend their decisions. If they don’t, if they succumb to the outcry of what almost inevitably is a vocal minority, they are teaching precisely the wrong lesson—that any decision by any duly constituted body can be reversed, if only you’re loud enough. This is not “democracy,” but rather mob rule. Is that the lesson we want to teach our future leaders?
Second, if there is a breakdown, as there has been this year, and speakers are disinvited or effectively forced to withdraw, no one should step into the breach.If you care about civility and procedure on campus, if you care about the college as an institution of higher learning, you should not reward bad behavior. Those who stand in for the speaker who was deemed persona non grata are simply encouraging more such antics in the future. Let the podium be empty. Let the college president or provost explain that the vocal incivility of a few has deprived this year’s graduatse of the privilege of hearing from a commencement speaker who was deemed worthy by those responsible for according that honor. Let people confront the consequences of their self-indulgent posturing.
Courage, people, courage!