In a surprising move, a commencement speaker at Haverford College on Sunday used the celebratory occasion to deliver a sharp rebuke to students who had mounted a campaign against another speaker who had been scheduled to appear but withdrew amid the controversy.
William G. Bowen, former president of Princeton and a nationally respected higher education leader, called the student protestors' approach both "immature" and "arrogant" and the subsequent withdrawal of Robert J. Birgeneau, former chancellor of the University of California Berkeley, a "defeat" for the Quaker college and its ideals.
I used to compulsively keep up with the news while I was on vacation -- it's in the nature of a journalist to try to avoid missing out on anything. But in recent years, I go out of my way to avoid the news because, well, because it's usually "same story, different names." When I left for vacation last week, for example, the big news was over Condi Rice withdrawing as a commencement speaker because or protests. So what was one of the first stories I saw this morning?
Bowen's remarks to an audience of about 2,800 that gave him a standing ovation added a new twist to commencement speaker controversies playing out increasingly on college campuses across the nation. Bowen faced no opposition, but chose to defend a fellow speaker who was targeted, calling the situation "sad" and "troubling."
Rutgers University also held commencement on Sunday without former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who withdrew after professors and students there protested her appearance for her role in the Iraq war. Smith and Brandeis, too, saw the loss of speakers this year.
Good for William Brown. Somebody needed to tell the little brats that it's not the best use of their rights to deny somebody else theirs. Heaven forbid they should have to spend a few minutes listening to somebody they might not agree with. What kind of preparation for the real world would that be?
A long time ago, in a city far, far, away, I wrote a couple of columns about some high school dispute involving the student newspaper being censored, and I came down pretty strongly on the side of the student journalists. I later heard through the grapevine that the students had tried to get me chosen as their commencement speaker but were turned down by school administrators. Wouldn't do to encourage their indpendent streak, I guess was the thinking.
Of course my thinking on the issue has changed over the years (BHO isn't the only one capable of mental evolution). These days, I'd be much more likely to side with the adiministration -- students are in school to learn, not to "exercise their rights." I suppose today the speaking invitation would come from administrators, and it would be the students protesting me.
Which brings up an "on the other hand" point (hey, I've been off for a week). Commencements are meant to celebrate students' successful conclusion of their academic careers. It's all about them -- shouldn't they have some say about whom they listen to as they think about moving on to the next phase of their lives? I think that case can be made, especially for college students about to take the plunge into the adult world.