The Forum | Freedom of Expression

Bland, Boring, Safe: A Timid Send-Off to the Class of 2015

May 1, 2015 by Christine Ravold

“Never, never, never, give up.”

This quote from Sir Winston Churchill’s commencement speech at Harrow School in 1941 conveys advice useful to those departing the hallowed halls of their school. But given the alarming trend of political correctness in higher education today, one must wonder: Would Churchill have been invited to speak at a commencement ceremony today?

After last year’s flood of protests over would-be commencement speakers—IMF Chief Christine Lagarde, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and comedian Bill Maher— 2015’s disinvitation season has been somewhat quieter. That would be good news if it meant that a spirit of tolerance had pervaded campuses nationwide. Unfortunately, colleges are merely choosing commencement speakers with ever greater attention to the possible objections a speaker could incite. With this criteria in mind, Churchill certainly wouldn’t have made the cut.

It would appear that the embarrassment of having disinvited speakers in the past is overshadowed only by having a speaker widely protested in the first place. To that effect, we are seeing a blander set of orators being entrusted to send off the class of 2015.

Bill Nye the Science Guy is to be this year’s speaker at Rutgers. After last year’s protests against Lagarde, Smith College chose Juliet Garcia, president of the University of Texas at Brownsville and the first Hispanic women to lead an American college or university. And after protestors at Haverford college drove away speaker Robert Birgeneau with a list of demands, this year’s speakers include Thandeka Luthuli Gcabashe, South Africa’s ambassador to Venezuela during Nelson Mandela’s presidency and a key figure in ending apartheid; Sister Mary Scullion, a nun renowned for her advocacy for the homeless; and Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative.

While admirable people and valuable speakers in their own right, these are not the A-list speakers that would have been invited in the past. They are safe, low profile, and less likely to cause controversy.

Our colleges are supposed to be the arena where free thought and open-mindedness converge.  By responding to disinvitation by only inviting safe, politically correct speakers, colleges are diluting the discourse and diversity at their own institutions. This is something of an intellectual retreat: a tactical maneuver on the part of schools who are so afraid of objections that they refuse to invite any mildly contentious speakers at all. The unwillingness on the part of some students to allow another voice in the discussion is indicative of people who fear their minds will be contaminated just by listening to another viewpoint. What is most alarming, however, is that the institutions we look to most to preserve our legacy of free thought and speech are caving into pressure.

Just in case a few schools got it wrong and accidently invited a more provocative speaker, we offer another gem from the bulldog himself: “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.”


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