Campus Free Speech

Should We Care About College Commencement Speakers?

Maybe a little, but don't get carried away

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

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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  1. “[H]ow tolerant the intellectual climate . . .,” it seems to me intolerance and intellectual are not compatible terms, but then I have not been victimized by “intellectual” progressive educators.

    1. Unfortunately, on most of today’s college campuses, intolerance and intellectual are not compatible. I am in my mid 60s and decided to go back to school when I retired. It is a routine in many of the classes I take to have the professor ask me to supply the flip side of the coin; a vast majority of the other students have never really heard a non-progressive/liberal deliver clear points contrary to their beliefs. (Epistemic Closure is rampant on most college campuses.)

      1. Why didn’t you choose one of the hundreds of conservative-controlled campuses?

        (If the answer is quality, your decision is understandable.)

  2. The issue isn’t that Commencement speakers are so thought provoking or change lives it is that Universities and Colleges so routinely reject really thoughtful speakers based on political views. The Administration will get a speaker and then porfessors or students will rebel because they dont like the particular views and the University caves. If it wasn’t always so one sided I would agree with the author but we should be concerned that the individuals who are supposed to be educating our kids are so willing to walk away from the idea that they are supposed to be exposing them to thoughts, concepts and perhaps even virtues different that they think they want to hear.

    1. “Routinely” might be a bit of an exaggeration. Hundreds of conservative speakers give talks, including commencement speeches, at campuses all over the country. A handful of high-profile cases don’t add up to “routinely.”

  3. Who is the “we” that “should” care?

    1. All responsible adults.

  4. 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.

    Outside of what you read on fake outraged blog posts – where is the real evidence of this? Recent numbers show about 4,300 universities in the United States. All of them but a very few make it through commencement without controversy.

    For kicks (or boredom) I took a look at commencement speakers in several public colleges in Minnesota, Colorado, etc which I’m personally familiar with and its a mixture of CEOs (some republicans, some democrats), whatever politician that is holding state wide office at the time (some republicans, some democrats), somewhat random academic types, and the occasional talk show host.

    I’m simply not seeing any real evidence that this is some sort of real controversy outside the libertarian echo chamber.

    And to answer your question poise in the headlines – I’m just going to invoke “Betteridge’s law of headlines” and state the answer as no. No one cares. Least of all the students who now have to figure out how to pay their massive student loans.

    1. If your “look” is an accurate indication, perhaps there is hope for the greatest country ever, but the “news” from the progressive propaganda pumps indicates otherwise.

    2. Now, regexp, don’t go bringing facts into this discussion. It spoils everyone’s fun.

  5. We should care about commencement speakers, zillions in student loan debt, about the fact that despite all the money we spend on higher education we have to ration it to the point where there is a large black market and that we have to engage in race discrimination.

    And then we should shut down the universities and replace them largely with online classes that people can take while working.

  6. 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,

    Since the format and timing of a commencement address all but guarantee that this will never be the case, for reasons you have articulated perfectly well here and elsewhere, I am forced to conclude that if, indeed, you lack confidence in the health of universities, your reasons have nothing to do with commencement speaker selections — even if the dubious factual predicate of the complaint is accepted.

  7. Liberal-libertarian schools tend to invite liberal-libertarian citizens as commencement speakers.

    Conservative-controlled schools tend to invite conservative citizens as commencement speakers.

    Some movement conservatives object to this pattern, largely because America’s strong schools tend to be well-regarded liberal-libertarian mainstream institutions, while conservative-controlled campuses tend to be fourth-tier (or unranked), censorship-shackled, superstition-based institutions with shabby reputations and sketchy accreditation.

    I see no reason for our strongest schools to emulate substandard schools by (1) hiring more movement conservatives for faculty positions or (2) inviting more right-wing commencement speakers.

    1. “Liberal-libertarian” is analogues to a “cat-dog” – take a look at an authoritative dictionary, you will find there are no known cross breeds, but then victims of progressive educators feel safe in a make believe world.

      1. Do victims of progressive educators become sufficiently familiar with standard English to distinguish analogues from analogous?

        1. Good catch, but the point remains the same.

          1. Libertarians tend to disdain liberals and conservatives to similar degree, often for good reason.

    2. So, is Angela Davis liberal or libertarian?

      (Google “Angela Davis commencement speech”)

      1. I do not know

  8. “Does any of this matter?”

    Huh? You just spent a paragraph explaining why it does matter. Treating one half of the ordinary political spectrum as so toxic that it can’t even be countenanced is extremely dangerous, and institutions of higher learning have an obligation to fight that kind of misinformation, not give in to it simply to get along.

  9. I think this article misses the point. The point isn’t whether conservatives get at least 50% of the commencement speaking slots or not. Who cares. The real problem is that these universities are caving in to mob rule. They know that leftist students will protest, sometimes violently so, against a conservative speaker, while conservative will not do the same thing to more left wing speaker.

    Allowing the worst of the worst to decide guest speakers for everyone else sets a terrible precedent.

  10. In choosing commencement speakers, a college/university is exercising its academic freedom. There’s no guarantee they’ll use that freedom wisely, just as there’s no guarantee a publisher will use its freedom wisely in choosing books/articles/blogs to publish.

    1. They are using their power to screw the graduates and family who paid for the degree one last time, delaying the handing out of the recognition of surviving the years of bullshit and indoctrination.

      Nobody cares, few could recall who spoke at any of their graduations (I cannot, anyway), and care less..

  11. Why have them at all? Hand out the diplomas, let parents and friends applaud, and then everyone leaves…..that’s the only reason to have a ‘graduation’ anyway.

    1. I doubt commencement attendance is mandatory — except, perhaps, at conservative-controlled schools.

  12. This is a strange little essay, in that the author seems to change his mind as he writes, so that the final paragraph disagrees with the headline. Anyway, I don’t care a whole lot about the activities of people–university professors and administrators–whom I regard with contempt, but I do think that they have too much power and money and generally support measures (e.g., cuts to government spending on higher education) to reduce their possession of those items. So maybe they should care about what outsiders think of their behavior.

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