Discuss: College students protest commencement speakers

Rice at Boston College in 2006

Rice at Boston College in 2006


This college graduation season has been abuzz with protests against commencement speakers. Portions of the student body have weighed in against invitations to former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at Rutgers, International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Legarde at Smith and former University of California Chancellor Robert Birgeneau at Haverford, among others.

Some commentators called the protesting students intolerant of opposing views. William Bowen, who replaced Birgeneau at Haverford as commencement speaker, denounced students who objected to Birgeneau as “immature” (apparently for having the temerity to write the chancellor a letter and wear buttons during the ceremony. Smith president Kathleen McCarthy lamented that Legarde’s withdrawal came at a “cost” to Smith.


Patrick O’Mahen – Learning is a Two-Way Discussion, and Commencements are for the Graduates

The subtext to all three of these complaints is that students lost an opportunity to hear a valuable perspective that didn’t fit with their preconceived view of the world.

It’s important that students (and teachers!) encounter ideas they find objectionable. But in the academy, students also need to have agency to engage with speakers and challenge them to clarify, defend and extend their ideas.

Commencement speeches – even if we grant that they actually contain real ideas instead of worthless platitudes – aren’t part of an academic exchange in a classroom; they are a speaker with a captive audience.

A true learning environment entails the possibility of exchange. Think about a college classroom. In a small seminar, much of conversation is in the hands of the students, who react to assigned readings. Multiple voices – ideally everyone in the class – engage in discussion to summarize, clarify, challenge and extend ideas. An instructor facilitates the exchange, prodding students to think about deeper questions.

Larger lecture classes or invited talks are different than small discussions, of course. Here a speaker or instructor has more deference and spends more of the time presenting their own thoughts (or the subject material). However, even here, students and audience members have the ability to engage. Students ask questions during lecture – at a minimum to clarify basic points and often to extend or challenge the ideas. They also critically engage with readings and lecture material through written assignments.

During invited talks, audience members get an opportunity at a minimum to engage with a speaker in a question-and-answer session. Usually, the speaker will be available for informal discussion after the talk to further engage with the audience members. Sometimes speakers participate in a panel discussion with several other leaders on the subject area, generating multiple perspectives on an issue. Sometimes invited speakers visit smaller classes on the day of their talk to allow for even more exchange with students and professors.

In contrast, commencement speakers get a captive audience. They get to talk about whatever they want for an undefined (hopefully brief) amount of time. The audience must sit and politely listen without the opportunity to engage with the speaker or the ideas that any speaker must present.

Graduation day is supposed to honor grads – not stoke a commencement speaker’s ego or attempt to raise the university’s profile by inviting a big name (like Rutgers apparently does). We need to stop pretending commencement addresses are a rich opportunity for education. And we should stop wasting everyone’s time by doing away with these silly speeches altogether.

Dr. O’Mahen is a lecturer in political science at Rice University and lead contributor for Thesis.


Shelby Joe – Respect the Office, and Learn by Listening

It is deplorable that college students–or anyone for that matter–should show such a lack of understanding for global figures and to exercise such a parochial attitude toward listening and learning. That the protesters in this situation are graduates from some of this country’s most academically rigorous institutions is even more disconcerting. When did elite colleges begin incubating such arrogance in place of openness and mutual respect, or worse, fail to educate their students on such simple topics as civics and listening?

The protests against these important figures shows disrespect and/ or a lack of understanding for the value and delicacy of the positions which these individuals hold.

Although I may one day harbor ambition for such offices as Legarde’s and Rice’s, I do not currently pretend to have the wherewithal to hold and manage their enormously important roles at the IMF and State Department. The soft science of economic development and the finesse of statecraft are currently beyond my everyday capabilities. And while it’s easy to read the analysis of others and lightly pass judgement on organizational failures, I prefer to not simply dwell on the past for blame’s sake, but to envision the future for posterity’s success.

I studied political science at Rice, happily served the George W. Bush administration, lived in “communist” China and “socialist” Germany, and associated with many a flaming liberal; there’s not any one person I agree with maybe even 75% of the time. Rather, my upbringing and especially my college education taught me to learn from any experience available to me and then to later form my own opinions and actions.

When did it become optional to abide by laws you don’t like or salute presidents you didn’t vote for?

In a way, I almost feel sorry for these protesting, now graduated students; I feel especially sorry for the university administrators that are responsible for their upbringing. How boring life must be only hearing what you’re used to hearing or getting only what you think you want.

What a missed opportunity for insight. Why even bother go to college in the first place? Surely these students could have saved a boatload of cash by simply staying home and watching the national news network of their sympathies when it so convenienced them.

Ostensibly these students went to these esteemed colleges to learn how to learn, to learn about our world, and to learn how to provide some informed value back to society. Surely they’re too young to fail on all three fronts.

Mr. Joe is the President of General Academic and publisher of Thesis.

“Discuss” pieces do not represent an editorial stance on behalf of Thesis Magazine or its publisher, General Academic. In addition, “Discuss” pieces may not even represent the opinion of the contributor/s as would be the case in an “Op-Ed.” Yes, it’s a cop-out, but the views we present in these articles may just be devil’s advocate. We post these stories to spark a discussion on relevant issues, even if they don’t make us comfortable or happy.

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