Should We Care About College Commencement Speakers?

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I recently noted that university commencement speakers are a frequent source of controversy and that “controversial” on a college campus usually means anything slightly right of center. As a consequence, universities have tended to welcome with open arms Democratic politicians and political activists, but have tended to judge Republicans and conservatives unfit to address a collection of university graduates.

Does any of this matter? Commencement speaker controversies are generally used as fuel for the fire of the campus free speech wars. Every disinvitation of a commencement speaker is thrown in with examples of campus speakers being shouted down by students and adjunct lecturers being fired to satisfy angry alums. It is not obvious that they should be.

At the end of the day, commencement speakers are not very important. They are not part of the scholarly endeavor. They are not part of the robust exchange of ideas. They are window dressing. They add a patina of seriousness, or maybe simply glitz, to a graduation ceremony.

Students and faculty are not expected to line up to ask questions after a commencement address. There is no room for debate or the expression of doubt. Commencement speakers are expected to say something predictable and banal. They are not expected to test the boundaries of what we know or develop an original idea. They are not expected to challenge graduates to see the world in new ways or prod them out of their familiar ways of thinking. They are expected to honor the graduates, and be honored by them in turn, and no one is expected to learn anything.

A wealthy donor, a professional athlete, a popular musician, or—in a pinch—a television reality star have all been deemed perfectly adequate college commencement speakers. A public intellectual, an opinion leader, or—heaven forbid—an academic are not the usual choice to charm and impress the graduates and their parents. Commencement speakers do not generally come from the world of ideas. They come from the corridors of power, the enclaves of privilege, and the limelight of celebrity. If universities stopped having commencement speakers tomorrow, there would be zero cost to their core mission.

So what does it matter if Mitt Romney is deemed too outre to snag a commencement speaker gig but Elizabeth Warren is thought to be the very model of a conventional choice? On its own, not very much. Commencement speakers are not part of the intellectual life on college campuses, but commencement speaker controversies are a visible metric of how tolerant the intellectual climate on campus is. If campus administrators, faculty and students cannot fathom giving a respectful hearing to member of the barbarous clan known as conservatives at graduation time, there is not much reason to think the campus is more open to a diverse range of views on a day-to-day basis. If campus administrators, faculty, and students cannot imagine why anyone would ever consider the choice of Ta-Nehisi Coates or Angela Davis to deliver the commencement address as potentially controversial, there is reason to doubt that the campus filter bubble has been adequately pierced.

I would feel more confident in the health of universities if commencement addresses were understood to be an opportunity to stimulate the mind and open a window into the world of ideas to which the students had been exposed on campus, if the thought of inviting a member of the E Street Band or the star of a television sitcom to deliver the commencement address were beyond the pale, and if commencement season were not an annual reminder why large segments of the country view universities as partisan institutions to be treated accordingly.


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