In addition to the blooming flowers and May showers of spring, university commencements also break upon the horizon. For new graduates, commencement day is the culmination of years of work and an opportunity for celebration alongside family and friends. But these graduation ceremonies increasingly are defined by something very different: needless controversy about the appropriateness of whatever prominent speaker the university books for the occasion.
Disinvitation season is upon us.
One recent example of this phenomenon occurred at Bethune-Cookman University in Florida, when Education Secretary Betsy DeVos rose to deliver her address at the university’s spring commencement. Secretary DeVos’s address was greeted with graduates standing and turning their backs to her. The speech was interrupted repeatedly by boos and jeers, and several students had to be removed from the hall for their interventions. University President Edison Jackson eventually implored the graduates to behave more respectfully, warning the students: “If this behavior continues, your degrees will be mailed to you.”
Sadly, Secretary DeVos’s treatment is just the latest example of the chilly reception speakers with contrasting views receive on many American college campuses. Sadly, no commencement season is complete without some speaker being shouted down, disinvited, or voluntarily withdrawing because some faculty and students cannot abide their deviations from campus orthodoxy. In 2009, President Barack Obama created controversy when he agreed to give the commencement address at the University of Notre Dame, a Catholic institution, given his pro-choice views. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stood down from a speech she was invited to give at the 2014 Rutgers University spring commencement, after the invitation sparked student protests. Even comedian and liberal firebrand Bill Maher faced blowback when he was invited to speak at UC–Berkeley’s fall commencement in December 2014.
As these examples show, calls for censorship cross partisan and ideological divides. The impulse to retreat from or silence opposing views is contrary to the spirit of intellectual inquiry that should be at the heart of higher education. A person that never encounters opposing views cannot successfully make compelling, reasonable arguments supporting his or her own views. Universities, students, and all people should follow the wise counsel of President Thomas Jefferson, who wrote of the University of Virginia that: “This institution will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”
Or, as President Barack Obama put it at the spring commencement of Howard University, another historically black institution, “. . . don’t try to shut folks out, don’t try to shut them down, no matter how much you might disagree with them . . . Listen. Engage. If the other side has a point, learn from them. If they’re wrong, rebut them. Teach them. Beat them on the battlefield of ideas.”