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.