Campus Free Speech

The Commencement Speaker Shuffle

What is college graduation season without a few protests and disinvitations?

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

We have entered graduation season. A time for celebration and nostalgia, a time of pomp and ceremony.

Graduation season has also become known as a time of protests and disinvitations. Every year colleges and universities try to find speakers to address their gathered graduates and their families. It is hoped that those speakers will add a bit of luster to the ceremony and provides some words of wisdom and inspiration. Selecting a suitable speaker has become something of a minefield for university leaders. Students have embraced commencement as one last opportunity to cow their elders and demonstrate their moral sensibilities. Students who are unhappy with the commencement speaker who has agreed to visit campus have threatened protests and walk-outs, launched petition campaign and sit-ins, and demanded that troublesome speakers be sent packing. Some portion of the invitations sent out to esteemed public figures asking them to grace the stage of a university graduation ceremony will be followed by a humiliating disinvitation informing the speakers that they have been judged unworthy and are no longer welcome to set foot on the college campus.

Unsurprisingly, colleges do not announce their disinvitations with the same fanfare with which they announce their invitations. The scorned speakers often quietly withdraw, and the colleges discreetly make alternative plans. Occasionally, speakers will make a fuss or the threatened protest will attract enough public attention that someone notices that the college is reprogramming their commencement activities. Sometimes the disinvitation will attract the attention of the press and the university's embarrassment will be noted. Often the switch will go unnoticed, and both the university and the speaker will be spared the need to explain what has happened. As a consequence, it is not terribly easy to know just how often colleges officially or effectively disinvite their commencement speakers, and it is not obvious whether such incidents are increasing or decreasing, are all too common or vanishingly rare.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) attempts to track disinvitations of commencement speakers. Their data shows that colleges frequently resist the demand to disinvite commencement speakers, though such demands are not uncommon. Their data also suggests that disinvitations have tapered off over the past couple of years. Although the demands for disinviting a speaker often comes from the political left, the political right sometimes weighs in as well to insist that a disfavored speaker be removed from the program.

This year we have been treated to a handful of fairly high-profile disinvitations. Concordia University rescinded its invitation to Harvard University government professor Harvey Mansfield to speak to the graduates of its liberal arts college. Mansfield is a Straussian political theorist and conservative academic of some renown, and a group of alumni of Concordia had persuaded a group of faculty that his written work on "manliness" was problematic. As might have been predicted, Mansfield did not go quietly, and so his disinvitation became a topic of discussion well beyond Concordia's own campus.

The University of Southern California School of Law secured the services of Jeh Johnson as their commencement speaker this year. Johnson served as Secretary of Homeland Security in the Obama administration and has since been a vocal critic of the Trump administration's border policies. Nonetheless, students and faculty at the school complained that Johnson's appearance at USC would "normalize state violence," and Johnson eventually withdrew from his role at the commencement ceremony.

Former governor and U.S. senator Bob Kerrey withdrew from the commencement ceremonies at Creighton University, a Jesuit university based in his home state of Nebraska. Remarkably, the demand that Kerrey be disinvited came from the state GOP's executive director, who judged Kerrey to be an inappropriate choice for a Catholic institution. The Republican political operative is a graduate of Catholic University of America and the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. Some thought the GOP's intervention was payback for Creighton's earlier disinvitation of a prominent Republican from a different event on campus. Creighton has announced that a former professional basketball player will speak in place of Kerrey, who is also the former president of the New School, a research university in New York City.

The campus of the small Christian college of Taylor University has been roiled by controversy in recent days after it announced that it had secured Vice President Mike Pence as its commencement speaker. Thus far, Pence has not withdrawn and Taylor University has not formally disinvited him, but faculty, students, and alumni, not to mention activists across the nation, have been divided on whether he should be allowed to speak. Virginia governor Ralph Northam preemptively withdrew from delivering the commencement address at the Virginia Military Institute after his yearbook photo scandal broke.

Universities anticipate the demands for disinvitation. They act accordingly by avoiding even extending invitations to speakers who might provoke protests from some students or faculty. As a consequence, we should pay attention to the invitations as well as the disinvitations. In coming days, I'll have additional posts on who gets invited to speak to college graduates and whether we should care.

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  1. Strictly, I’d say a commencement speaker is “institutional speech” – speech for which the college/university itself should get credit/blame. Thus disinviting someone would be more like a magazine choosing to kill an article than a city manager denying Republicans the use of the park.

    So it will all boil down to a couple of things. Numero uno, the quality of the speaker who ends up speaking. Numero two-o, the problem of inviting someone and then sending a follow-up letter saying never mind, you’re not worthy. Which might be seen as somewhat insulting – more so than not inviting the person in the first place.

    1. “So it will all boil down to a couple of things. Numero uno, the quality of the speaker who ends up speaking. Numero two-o, the problem of inviting someone and then sending a follow-up letter saying never mind, you’re not worthy. Which might be seen as somewhat insulting – more so than not inviting the person in the first place.”

      Long-term, a school that develops a reputation for canceling on speakers will find it hard to book anyone worth hearing. On the other hand, commencement is for the students and their families, not the school. The administration should be trying to book speakers that the students want to hear from (ideally) or aren’t actively offended by (baseline minimum).

      1. That certainly sounds about right.

        If enough students – more than the now-inevitable fringe of complainers – don’t like the speaker, don’t force the speaker on them.

          1. All you had to do was notice that I was right, as usual.

            1. I posted first, so technically, *you* were the one agreeing with *me.*

              1. Which one of us wrote “that sounds about right” about the other’s words?

                1. I said it sounds about right because you were (presumably unwittingly) echoing sentiments I have previously posted. When I saw that you agreed with me, naturally I had to concede that in this case you were right.

                  This illustrates the perils of trying to be gracious to progressives. But I will still try.

                  1. “I had to concede that in this case you were right.”

                    Was that so hard?

                    1. You were right to express the same views which I had previously expressed.

                      There, that wasn’t difficult, was it?

                  2. “This illustrates the perils of trying to be gracious to progressives.”

                    You’re saying I’m a progressive? And you (previously) agreed with me? Egads.

                    1. You expressed a view which I have previously defended, in a more eloquent manner than you did.

                      So it was you who agreed with me.

                      Also, I was trying to be nice, but you had to go piss in the punch bowl like a sperg.

                    2. Now you’re complaining that you were progressive first? Fine, you win that point.

  2. So the Red Guard are biting liberals too.

    Good. Maybe administrator will get re-discover their backbones.

  3. “Students have embraced commencement as one last opportunity to cow their elders and demonstrate their moral sensibilities. ”

    The customer is always right.

    1. Then shouldn’t we be asking the parents which speaker they want to see at commencement?

      Why not take the vicuna? After all, the lady’s paying.

      1. Things have changed since you paid any attention to what’s happening on campus.

        Mom and dad aren’t paying any more, and the average age of college graduates has been moving upwards for a couple of decades.

        I stopped going to my own graduations after the first one, but when I was a member of the faculty, my employer mandated my presence.

        1. Huh? My 4th and final graduate finishes up in August and I’ve been paying through the nose for more than a decade, even after scholarships. Parents are most assuredly still paying.

          1. My first is finishing her first year of graduate school. She earns her own money.

            1. “One of my children didn’t pay, so parent’s aren’t paying anymore”.

              Got it.

              1. Glad you can understand simple things.

  4. Seems to me “disinvitations” show more about the quality of the faculty and their victims (i.e., students) than the disinvited.

    1. That’s what I was thinking. It seems like the administrators supposedly running the school don’t know enough about their students to pick an acceptable speaker, or the students are protesting to be protesting.
      “You’ve selected a horrible fascist racist hate-speaking bigot who shouldn’t be allowed to step foot on campus, much less be allowed to speak! What’s xers name?”

  5. “Remarkably, the demand that Kerrey be disinvited came from the state GOP’s executive director, who judged Kerrey to be an inappropriate choice for a Catholic institution.”

    This Whittington person seems to have an iconoclastic view of the proper use of the word “remarkably.” And referring to a Jesuit university as Catholic is a technical conflation that should be avoided, IMHO.

    1. ? Jesuits aren’t Catholic?

      1. I think the idea is that it’s like conflating a guy who pilots a coast guard cutter with a navy seal.
        Jesuits are their own super-special sect.

  6. This is such typical professorial mendacity, to claim that “[s]tudents have embraced commencement as one last opportunity to cow their elders . . . .” An honest report would say that professors, whose trivial world otherwise passes unnoticed by people with real jobs, use commencement as an annual high profile opportunity to rally their minions in the cause of speech suppression and hatred of their fellow citizens. But Prof. Whittington, like the other Conspirators, lacks the courage to call out his colleagues, and prefers to claim that it’s all the fault of the students.

    1. Boom.

  7. “What is college graduation season without a few protests and disinvitations?”

    Sane?

  8. I see absolutely no problems here.

    Isn’t democracy supposed to be confrontational and messy?

    Someone makes a decision and someone doesn’t like it…

    Bring it on!!!

    1. Was the Red Guard an exercise in democracy”

      Putting a few immature young student “activists” in control is bad for the silent majority who just want to graduate in peace.

      .

      1. The vast majority don’t give a damn who the commencement speaker is; they’re indifferent at best. The commencement speech is just something to endure while waiting to have 15 seconds of glory and a handshake with a prominent official of the university.
        That’s not quite the same thing as saying they have a big interest in keeping the original speaker invited by their school.

        1. Having sat through my three graduations and several for others, I’d just as soon not have a speaker at all; particularly since my alma mater now has to split graduation into several ceremonies to avoid multi-hour marathons.

          1. The one my daughter graduated from last year went with the multi-hour marathon, and filled the football stadium (back in my day, we fit in the basketball arena.)

  9. “his written work on “manliness” was problematic.”

    Nothing more problematic for the liberal pantywaists of today than masculinity itself.

    1. Nothing more problematic than people who misunderstand it, anyway.

    2. Sounds like the objected to the man’s field. Get it? Mansfield. Man’s field.

      It’s great to be back.

    3. You talk tough for someone destined to spend an impotent, irrelevant life getting stomped in the culture war and complying obsequiously with the preferences of your liberal-libertarian betters. Whine all you want about it, so long as you toe that line, clinger.

  10. A graduation ceremony is not an academic affair, at which serious ideas get explored — and certainly not exchanged, because the speaker does all the talking. Graduation is for the students and their families to celebrate. Graduation speakers are, at best, a customary, though not necessary, evil. Whatever their leanings, they usually get up and bore the assembled multitudes with platitudes. Rarely does one of them say anything memorable or inspiring, or even moderately interesting. If an administration picks a speaker who seriously pisses off a substantial subset of the students for whom the entire spectacle is meant, why shouldn’t it disinvite the speaker?

    1. Certainly try to avoid antagonizing the students, but bear in mind that a certain “subset” of students would probably object to any speaker to the right of Angela Davis, so you have to ask yourself how representative the complainers are. If the great majority of students would find a speaker inspiring, or prestigious, then awarding a veto to complaining students on one side only of the political spectrum would tilt the playing field.

      1. “bear in mind that a certain “subset” of students would probably object to any speaker to the right of Angela Davis”

        So you have a choice of displeasing students whose preferences are well-known, and a vast choice of potential commencement speakers who don’t make a point of engaging in politics publicly. Gosh, which should the administration favor… their own customers, or random commenters on the Internet?

  11. ” If an administration picks a speaker who seriously pisses off a substantial subset of the students for whom the entire spectacle is meant, why shouldn’t it disinvite the speaker?”

    It makes the allies and followers of the disinvited get all whiny. “Boo hoo!”, they say. “You’re treating us as unpopular just because we aren’t popular. No FAIR!”

    1. More plausibly, it makes the disinvited person (backed by her/his supporters) ask quite reasonably: “Why didn’t you simply invite someone else in the first place?”

      “Oh, well, when we first invited you we didn’t know about your September 12, 2001 statement where you said America was the greatest country on earth and worth defending. Our students don’t feel safe with a jingoist and white supremacist like you walking around.”

      1. It’s a good lesson for the students… putting examples of doing stupid things online where you can be identified can affect your employment options later on down the road. So, for example, if you go on a racist rant and get identified as the rant-or, expect to be identified as a racist long afterwards.

        In other news, having done or said things that people don’t like can affect your ability to reach elective office

  12. […] a previous post, I noted that the selection of commencement speakers has become a notorious minefield for […]

  13. […] a previous post, I noted that the selection of commencement speakers has become a notorious minefield for […]

  14. […] a previous post, I noted that the selection of commencement speakers has become a notorious minefield for […]

  15. […] a previous post, I noted that the selection of commencement speakers has become a notorious minefield for […]

  16. […] 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 […]

  17. […] 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 […]

  18. […] 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 […]

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