The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent

Campus Free Speech

The Commencement Speaker Shuffle

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


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.