This graduation season Former Secretary of State Condi Rice withdrew from giving Rutgers commencement speech and human rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali was disinvited at Brandeis. There was some university community opposition to Rice and Ali – so one withdrew and the other got booted.
And now? Another one! Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), has withdrawn her name from giving the commencement address at Smith College. Why? Because 500 people signed a petition opposing her selection due to the policies at the IMF. Like Secretary Rice, she withdrew rather than become a spoiler for a traditionally exciting day.
In recent years, I have been fortunate (honored) to give the commencement speeches at Harvard Law School, Georgetown Law Center, University of Wisconsin and even my high school. It takes a lot of work to write a speech and it means a weekend day away from family and away from other personal activities but it has always been worth it. I love to look out and see the proud parents and families and the excitement of the graduates. I love meeting the graduates.
But now? Things are changing or have changed. It is a very different environment.
Yes, protesting speakers is not new and I am a strong advocate of the First Amendment. But is the exercise of that important right shooting ourselves in the foot when it comes to graduation? It is almost impossible to find a commencement speaker who doesn’t have some who object to him or her for some reason – or who has not been part of some controversy.
But colleges and universities, and their communities, rather than embracing the diversity of experience or ideas or ideology, or even what can be a challenging and rigorous debate surrounding controversy, there appears now to be a witch hunt, fueled by social media, to run the speaker out. And yes, the witch hunt in many instances is winning.
Yes, we Americans have some strong differences and I am not suggesting abandoning principles. But if this goes on, and in this manner, we risk politically correcting ourselves into bunkers.