There are many potential characteristics of a college commencement address. Speakers offer congratulations, challenges, insights on what’s ahead and personal stories about success and failure, just to name a few.

The best speakers deliver an honest message, one worthy of young adults who are about to enter a world where candor trumps coddling, where self-reliance is valued more than self-importance.

Sunday, the graduates at Haverford College outside Philadelphia received a healthy dose of veracity from their commencement speaker.  Former Princeton University President William Bowen chastised the students whose campaign against Robert Birgeneau led him to withdraw as Haverford’s commencement speaker.

Birgeneau is the former president of UC Berkeley where, in 2011, campus police used force to break up student and faculty demonstrations against college costs.   A group of about 40 Haverford students and three faculty members objected to Birgeneau’s invitation, causing him to withdraw.

Bowen, filling in for Birgeneau Sunday, took the students to task, calling them “immature” and “arrogant.” He specifically criticized the comment of one student who said Birgeneau’s cancelation was a “minor victory.”

“It represents nothing of the kind,” Bowen said in his address.  “In keeping with the views of many others in higher education, I regard this outcome as a defeat, pure and simple, for Haverford—no victory for anyone who believes, as I think most of us do, in both openness to many points of view and mutual respect.”

The protesting students even sent a nine-point “list of demands” to Birgeneau, calling on him to make a public apology for the 2011 incident and to write an open letter to the campus explaining what he has learned from the event and “how you have put what you learned into practice.”

Bowen called the demands intemperate.  “In my view, they should have encouraged him to come and engage in genuine discussion,” Bowen said in his speech, “not to come, tail between his legs to respond to an indictment that a self-chosen jury had reached without hearing counter-arguments.”

Haverford was not the only school where political correctness took over the podium at graduation.

Christine Legarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, pulled out at Smith College after protests.  Former National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice bowed out at Rutgers after students objected to her role in the Iraq War and human rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali had her honorary degree pulled at Brandeis because of her controversial comments about Islam.

This has become what Anne Neal, president of the American Council on Trustees and Alumni, calls “a heckler’s veto.”

That’s a shame.  College campuses are supposed to be the marketplace of ideas, not cauldrons for stewing the ever-expanding “offended class.”  Thank goodness Dr. Bowen had the fortitude to deliver a candid and thought-provoking speech at Haverford.

That was a commencement message worth hearing.




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  • DWM

    Imagine the shock when these coddled students reach the marketplace and find out that their employers don't give a damn about their "minor victories" or particularly care whether their feelings have been hurt.

    Unfortunately for them, they can't all be college professors and will need to be productive and work for a living.

  • dale grubb

    On the subject of mailings by political parties they all do it some do it in a rather sneeky way. On the va mess it is just a way of enforcing part of obama care if you remember he made a comment if it came down to a old or yoingn person recieving teatment who gets it it is wyong butnthis is my opoinion

  • dude

    College. A business transaction. I paid for a service. Give me the paperwork and skip the pomp.

    • BR

      EXACTLY - dude!!

      I KNEW going in (or course, I had already served 4 years in the USMC) that my Collegiate "experience" was simply a logical transaction.
      I show-up, do my part, and in return I get a PIECE OF PAPER that claims I can handle the marketplace.
      Nothing else really to it.

  • Ole Sasquatch

    I use to feel a little sorry for Rutgers when we beat them so often in the playing arena. Not anymore.

  • mntnman

    Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. First Amendment to the US Constitution.

    Either we believe in free speech or not. Nothing half way here. The students had their right to have their say. To protest the speaker. To object to his view. Then, of course, the newest commencement speaker had the right to say his piece as well. We either believe in free speech or not. You may or may not agree with the students, but they exercised a fundamental right -- to criticize them for exercising that right, by a member of the media no less -- strikes me as hypocritical. You may not agree with the content of their speech -- but they had every right to express it.

    So to does the invited speaker. He did not have to beg off. He could have stood his ground and went to the graduation. He could have spoken. He chose not to as is his right.

    More to the point, people forget, commencement ceremonies are about the graduates. Not the speaker. In fact, far too often, the speaker drones on, self important, all about me. Blah, blah, blah. Most students want a brief message, a congrats, and their diploma. (Not all, but most from my discussions with graduates.) So, for the new speaker to condemn them and chastise them spoke more about his viewpoint than his purpose for being there. It was all about him and his view that he needed to "protect" a fellow former university president. That's not why he was there. He was there to congratulate the students. Instead, he chose to bring more controversy.

    This was a graduation. Commencement is designed to congratulate those who succeeded and bring them a positive message for their future. It is about giving them a message of hope and best wishes. It is not about the speaker themselves, but a message they bring. So yeah, it does matter who speaks. Is it OK to invite the Grand leader of the KKK? (No, I am not suggesting the proposed speaker is in that category; just using an extreme to make a point.) The proposed speaker brought controversy. Everyone knew that would be the case. Yet, they chose him anyway. Some objected. What exactly did they expect?

    In the end, this is about free speech. Criticize if you want, but both sides here exercised the right. I think it was a good lesson in civics. Neither side should be denigrated. Both did what they felt they needed to do. Perhaps its time to end bringing in outsiders to speak. It is becoming an arms race -- what school can bring in the biggest speaker.

    I will end with this. If all those who were silent really wanted the first speaker, they would have said so. They did not to my knowledge. Their silence, it seems, speaks loudly to me.

    • Robin

      I agree, which is why I told them to mail it to me, I am going to work.

    • Silas Lynch

      Sometimes, after reading many of these post, I am reminded ; It doesn't take a village to rais an idiot, only a liberal or two.

      These particular college kids are exactly who they pretend to hate. And for that they have the support of many.

    • Silas Lynch

      Did you somehow miss the part the students required of the potintual speaker to confess his "crimes" before he could speak? That attitude of the students makes them very much belligerent towards a free and open minded society. IMHO

      • The bookman

        But they had no power to restrict his speech; no ability to compel any action. He succumbed to their demands by withdrawing.

    • Aaron

      While I agree with the sentiment of your comment, I can't help but not that Haverford College is a private University and as such, exempt from the 1st Anendment.

      • The bookman

        I don't think anyone is questioning Haverford's legal option to restrain the activity of students or faculty at this private institution, but in this instance, they officially took NO action. Speech is being raised as an issue in that Hoppy appears to prefer the Speech offered by Birgeneau over the resistance by the students and faculty through their speech. Both groups are protected by the First Amendment to speak their mind and delineate their positions, and both are subject to the private consequences of that speech.

        • Aaron

          I wasn't dating a belief that students should be silenced. I'm all for everybody speaking their mind. My comment was directed at Mr. Man, the reference to First Amendment. It does not apply here. There is no right to free speech at Haverford College under any conditions. The institution could choose to silence anyone they wish. Far too often people confuse where the constitutional rights are and are not applicable.

          As to this specific issue, I agree that the person most lacking was the speaker who backed out. To allow a minority group of liberal students to essentially scare the gentleman away speaks volumes. Perhaps he did not wish to create controversy during this time. To that I say regardless of the speaker, someone in every graduating class in every college and university will not be happy. The gentleman should have spoke and took his detractors head on.

          • mntnman

            I did agree with your thought, but still think that generally, freedom of speech is considered a right of all citizens in nearly all forums. The University could have stifled speech, but it chose to let the objectors speak. I think largely in deference to the First Amendment.

        • Wirerowe

          I fully support the concept of tenure to protect professors from the outside interference from the state. But with that protection goes in my mind the obligation not to abuse that power and hide behind it to advocate a very narrow agenda. In most of these instance of students running off speakers I am of the opinion that professors were the main pot stirrers in the protest . As to the bill of rights I think we need more focus on the meaning of the amendments rather than simply the legal implications In essence they are promoting tolerance and the acceptance of differing opinions, These professors are for freedom of ideas as long as they are their ideas.. I disagree with you that the speakers should have stood firm. In those cases standing firm would have shifted the emphasis to them and not to the graduates. I hope that each of the young protestors become good citizen who vote, volunteer, are devoted to their friends, family members and members of the greater society. This would be much more important to me than them running around with a placard.

          • The bookman

            That is a point to consider, but I think at some point people need to stand for what they believe and not be driven by the loudest shouts among us, as they are usually on the perimeter of the social discourse. And given the speech by Bowen, I would say the issue didn't fall silent because Birgeneau withdrew.

      • mntnman

        Good point. While I agree that the First Amendment does not directly apply to the University itself, I am referring to the right we all have to speak our mind in our free country. The proposed speaker did, as did the students and faculty, as did all those who remained silent, as did the speaker himself. Pretty much like every controversy we have in this country.

    • The bookman

      I agree, and I have more trouble with the lack of conviction of the speaker to push forward than with the students/faculty to rebel. Because the speaker chose to relent, both sides of the debate were silenced. Our freedom of peaceful assembly must always come first, regardless of the appearances at a graduation ceremony or any other venue.

      • bulldog95

        Do you really think there would have been a debate? If the first speaker would have came then the students would have been all in an uproar and threatened to not come or worse. They would have tried to make a name for themselves and tried to shout down the speaker all in the blind hopes that said behavior will land them a big job.

        • The bookman

          Maybe these students would have asserted themselves and maybe not. They needed to choose their path. Would they have stood their ground and been vocal? Would the College have permitted such a spectacle? Would there have been repercussions to students and faculty for their disrespectful behavior? By withdrawing, Birgeneau left them win without confrontation. As a result, what have they learned?

          Scream loud and risk nothing.

          • The bookman

            Dog you need to find out why your posts are held for 10 hours. Nothing in that post that deem moderation!

  • Hillboy

    While it sounds like the protestors may have deserved some chastisement, I'm not sure why the rest of the graduating class deserved to have to sit through it.

  • Jesse's girl

    Another good commentary on the state of colleges and universities today. Two times, I came home from church, put on flat shoes and walked the mile to the WVU Coliseum to hear the commencement speaker. The first was Captain Scott O'Grady (shot down over Bosnia, survived and rescued). Now that was someone to needed to be heard. The second a couple of years later was Homer Hickam, author of Rocket Boys. There is another story of grit and success--I recently re-read Rockey Boys, Coalwood Ways, and Sky of Stone for the WV Reads 150.
    What is graduation? It is not just about the students. It is also about their parents. I graduated from WVU in 1966 in the Mountaineer Stadium. I can still remember daddy with his gown and MIT hood and 2 cameras around his neck. Dr. Core handed me my diploma. I received my MA via mail as I was graduated in August. However, on May 10, 1987, I marched into Keenan Stadium in Chapel Hill wearing daddy's gown, a tam I had made w/ daddy's metallic tassel and a doctoral hood I had made. My mother and daddy were there--it was Mother's Day. They were 81 and 86 years old. My major professor also wore his gown and hood and marched as I was graduating. One of my brother came from TN. Now many of the undergraduates acted the complete horses' rears. It was explained that THEY did not want to be there. Nice way to show appreciation to parents who had parted w/ megabucks to give the little ingrates a college education--on Mother's Day.
    Now if the little ingrates know so much as to dictate who speaks at their graduation, they did not need to go to college in the first place. Good luck in the world with those attitudes. No wonder they cannot tolerate anyone having a different opinion. We used to call them brats.

    • Aaron

      Brats is a nice word. I don't think most young people or faculty appreciate graduation. Those in the real world who have worked see it differently.

      • Hillboy

        In my experience living in Morgantown and working with WVU students, most students do appreciate graduation. Sure, WVU has its share of "party majors." But, there are still a lot of good kids out there. Let's not paint them all with the same wide brush.

        • Aaron

          While not claiming to be an expert on all students, from my experiences I believe my general sentiment is accurate as is evidenced by fact that as much as a third of graduates opt out of ceremonies. As such, I reserve the right to paint with a wide brush.

          • WVU 74

            Skipped mine as well. My new employer had me on assignment in Fremantle, Western Australia.

            Besides, I was at a point in my life that I no longer desired to participate in Meat Parades.

          • The bookman


            I skipped mine. I had to work!

          • Hillboy

            OK, I misunderstood. I thought you were referring to kids these days not appreciating actually graduating when you meant they did not appreciate the graduation ceremony. I stand corrected.

            As someone who is not big on ceremony though, not attending graduation, in my opinion, does not make one a brat.

  • J Lo

    Garrison Keillor, recalling his graduation, said he couldn't remember a single word any of the speakers had said but on the way out of the place one of his classmates lit a fart on fire and that image was permanently embedded in his mind. That's the perfect metaphor for every graduation ceremony.

  • Medman

    About the only thing positive that may come from all of this is that we may eventually see a meaningful backlash to the extreme liberalism that has overtaken higher education. For example, the leading faculty protestor at Rutgers is a self-proclaimed communist who had the gall to claim it a victory on the web to her international comrades. It may take twenty years, but something must change at our universities or we are done as a country.

  • Jim N Charleston


    If you're talking about the disaster of Kathlene Kennedy Townsand at WVU's Graduation in 99 or 2000, yeah I agree. Worst commence ever. Windy, Cold, and Dreary & not talking about the fact it was out doors at New Mountaineer Field on a cloudy day. She was the worst and most depressing speaker EVER. I'll always remember the only applause came when she said, "In closing". Worst yet, that crazy wind bag got paid for her rant.

    All I got
    I'm Jim N NC

  • Wirerowe

    Good on William Bowen. These kids don't usually act in a vacuum.In most every case the protests were in the northeast and there were professors involved in the protest. At Haverford I saw a report that there were several professors that were from Berkeleywho were involved. And clearly the lead protestor at Rutgers was a professor. President Loonijad of Iran who denied the holocaust and advocated the destruction of Israel was asked to speak at Columbia. Although it was not a commencement, and many dissenting voices he was rightly allowed to speak. Though the President did a bait and switch and attacked him at the conference after inviting him. My point everyone should be allowed to speak and college professors as a condition if tenure should be required to read the first amendment 5 times. Five times because I don't think some of them would get it the first four times.

  • CaptainQ

    Excellent commentary Hoppy, I couldn't agree more. We need more people like William Bowen giving commencement addresses.

  • ShinnstonGuy

    I applaud these students for having enough "get up and go" to protest. However, I hope they learn to channel their energy. Getting rid of a commencement speaker is about the dumbest thing I have heard, and does not pass the, "Is this going to matter in five years?" test. They should take their energy and focus on making a real change in Government; kicking out the 20+ year representatives that don't serve anyone other than their own self-interest. Now that would be a protest worth bragging about!

  • The bookman


    Where was the courage and conviction of those wishing to give the address? Dissenting voices are a requirement to truly have "a marketplace of ideas,". Otherwise it is simply an exercise of affirmation. Yes, it would appear the dissent took on a tone of disrespect, but really what do you expect from a few incensed college kids playing anti establishment roles, standing up to the "man," some of which were actually very accomplished women.

    You led this year with a commentary to ring in 2014 that challenged all of us to be more open to the other side, and truly consider differing views. The point is that we can't expect to always agree, or persuade the opposing side of the debate to see it your way. The commencement speakers, and possibly those who sponsored their selection, should have stood their ground, made their argument in the face of dissent, and held their heads high with the confidence of their experience and accomplishment. No one has a right to speak absent dissent, and at no time should we seek to silence any opinion, whether it represents a minority or majority view. That is truly the "marketplace" that creates a complete examination of ideas.

    • Big Bob-E

      Very well spoken...I'm glad the next generation cares enough to "stand up for something" I remember growing up thru the 60's and 70's..we were always protesting some cause...most of the time I wasn't even sure what the cause just the thing to do!!!

      • Wirerowe

        My father was not a joiner of social groups nor have I been I was drafted out of graduate school to go to Viet Nam in the 60s. Before that I attended rallies of those who supported the war, usually fraternity member and those that opposed the war , let's call them hippies. In both groups I observed the same group dynamics. They were much more similarities as members of groups than differences.They were social clubs, emboldened by numbers with the mentality at the slightest arousal of a mob. I am happy that we live in a society that allows them hat freedom. But there is nothing inherently redeeming about standing up for something or a group or a mob. The devil is in the details of the quality of the character of the individuals involved and the merit of their cause.

        • The bookman

          What is redeeming is that our American society supports such assembly regardless of merit or cause. It is because those like you gave of yourself for those freedoms. Thank you for your service, Wire!

          • Wirerowe

            You are always thoughtful and make excellent points Bookman. But on some things I go with my gut. I was really peed off at the decision by Brandeis and each subsequent event has only added to my discontent. I think this has been a shameful month for higher education but I know that you and others see it as symptomatic of a free and open society. There are points on both sides and listening to your reasoning calms me down a little.

  • Hop'sHip

    I agree with Hoppy. I must need more coffee.