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Conservative Commencement Speakers Not Welcome.--

At the New School, some students, faculty, and staff are angry that John McCain will be the commencement speaker. As an excellent article at Inside Higher Ed. recounts, McCain was invited by university president and former Senator Bob Kerrey:

Kerrey said the senator's acceptance "is a big honor for our graduates and their families."

But hundreds of students, staff and faculty members at the institution of about 9,000 students have signed paper and online petitions that seek to revoke the invitation.

Several students and faculty members pointed out that McCain has supported banning gay marriage in Arizona, and that, three days before his visit to the New School, McCain will be speaking at Liberty University, whose founder and chancellor, Rev. Jerry Falwell, has openly expressed his opposition to homosexuality.

"Up until a few months ago, I was happy he was coming," said Anthony Szczurek, a New School freshman. "I think the thing that bothers me the most is him speaking at Jerry Falwell's school." Szczurek said that he thinks it's not appropriate to have a speaker that is hostile to the gay community speak on a day of celebration at an institution with a vibrant gay community.

Harper Keenan, a sophomore, has helped organize the dissent. "In all of our classes we're taught the value of inclusion of all people," he said, "and we're taught to question our leaders."

The University Student Senate wrote a letter to Kerrey saying that the commencement speaker "commands a higher profile than an ordinary lecturer, and may be assumed to have the implicit endorsement of the university community."

McCain, who will receive an honorary degree from the New School, pointed out on the Fox News Network that the New School is a "somewhat liberal institution," and some students and faculty members at the university think that McCain is just using his visit to balance out the Liberty stop and seem more moderate than he is.

"John McCain is a conservative politician who supports South Dakota's ban on abortion, and he's avidly pro-Iraq War," said Gregory Tewksbury, a part time faculty member at the New School. "People feel like [the invitation to McCain] made commencement into a political platform."

Tewksbury added that this isn't a free speech issue, and that he had no problem with Paul Wolfowitz, President Bush's former deputy secretary of defense, having given a speech at the New School in 2003. "There was give a[nd] take," he said, whereas at commencement, "there will be no chance to engage any of his views."

Students at the New School aren't the only ones revolting against politically charged graduation speakers. Hundreds of students and faculty members at Boston College have voiced their opposition to having Condoleezza Rice, the U.S. secretary of state, appear at graduation and receive an honorary degree. . . .

McCain will also be speaking at . . . Columbia University for the undergraduate college's Class Day, the first of two days of graduation ceremonies.

At Columbia, Laura Cordetti, a senior, has organized opposition to McCain. When Cordetti heard McCain would be speaking, she started a Facebook group — "John McCain Does Not Speak For Us" — that quickly started attracting other students. As at the New School, much of the opposition is in light of McCain's stop at Liberty. Inviting someone "who has directly been hurting gay people in a legislative way to come here on a day which is supposed to be about celebrating what we stand for is insulting."

Cordetti, who is graduating, likely won't have champagne for McCain after his talk. She said that she isn't trying to trample on free speech, but that having McCain for graduation is like inviting someone you don't like to your party.

Kerrey said that McCain is "clearly within the mainstream of American political thinking today."

The New School petition, which is short and clearly written is here. It currently has 409 signatures.

The idea of diversity is to listen to people who are saying different things that you might not have thought of or agree with, not just to listen to your friends and people like your friends. As Randy Barnett once said, "People want different voices so long as they are all saying the same thing." Indeed, Columbia's Laura Cordetti thinks "that having McCain for graduation is like inviting someone you don't like to your party"--in other words, having to listen to people with whom one differs is a bad thing.

A similar lack of perspective is suggested in the comments of New School part-time professor Gregory Tewksbury, who "had no problem with Paul Wolfowitz . . . having given a speech at the New School in 2003" because "There was give a[nd] take." Of course, it's generally better in an academic setting to have a give-and-take, but (as Tewksbury notes) that's not realistic at graduation. Unfortunately, if McCain says anything partisan or offensive, Tewksbury will just have to suffer in silence, like many students hearing partisan speeches have had to do at so many graduations.

Note that in an otherwise superb story David Epstein at Inside Higher Ed. writes: "Students at the New School aren't the only ones revolting against politically charged graduation speakers." True — but the implication here is that the reaction is to "politically charged graduation speakers," rather than just to the politicians on the right discussed in the article.

As Bob Kerrey notes, McCain is "clearly within the mainstream of American political thinking today." Indeed, it is likely that, on a range of issues, McCain is closer to the political center than those protesting his speeches. One would expect that universities would be more open to the views of the political mainstream, whether correct or wrong.

I will have more on politics and convention speakers in another post.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Did Ted Sorenson Ghostwrite Profiles in Courage?--
  2. Political Commencement Addresses.--
  3. Conservative Commencement Speakers Not Welcome.--
JJB (mail):
I think one important thing to keep in mind is that while there is much talk about the amount that the academy leans left, the New School is an avowedly liberal institution and is very conscious of having a unique (or atleast uncommon) set of institutional values. John McCain's opposition to gay rights is clearly inconsistent with those values. There's also a difference between a regular campus speaker and a commencement speaker. I don't agree with the politics of these students, but I think they have every right to express there displeasure at having their graduation (a celebration of THEIR achievement) being centered on a speaker who offends their values, the very values that attracted most of them to the New School in the first place.
5.7.2006 4:29pm
Nathan Hall (mail):
So "[i]n all of our classes we're taught the value of inclusion of all people"...except maybe "conservative politician[s] who supports South Dakota's ban on abortion, and [are] avidly pro-Iraq War." Why is tolerance so often just an excuse for a new orthodoxy?
5.7.2006 4:30pm
Abdul (mail):
Give credit to the University of Pennsylvania where the students have criticized the choice of Jodie Foster as a graduation speaker, not becuase of her politics, but just because they don't think she has much of substance to say. Granted, there won't be the same righteously indignant protests that McCain will face, but I respect the students for picking substance over stardom.
5.7.2006 4:32pm
Vovan:
I agree with JJB, New School, is even more liberal than NYU undergrad, I suppose the students at Liberty U. would have the same reaction if Ted Kennedy or Hillary showed up as a commencement speaker. (Scratch that last name, I don't even want to think what would happen to Hillary at Liberty U.)
5.7.2006 4:34pm
Mike BUSL07 (mail) (www):
Yeah, I must admit, that while NS kids are a wacky bunch indeed, commencement is one time when they should just be happy to have their prejudices reinforced by an anthony wiener or a chuck schumer, and not challenged. I realize that conservative students have to put up with this all the time, but two wrongs dont make a right.
5.7.2006 4:35pm
JJB (mail):
By the way, Jerry Falwell has an op-ed in the New York Times today defending the decision to have McCain speak at Liberty University's commencement. I got the distinct feeling from the tone that he's heard some opposition to the choice. See: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/05/07/opinion/07falwell.html
5.7.2006 4:36pm
Blah (mail):
It's not like this is unique to (socially) liberal institutions.

http://www.cwnews.com/news/viewstory.cfm?recnum=10271

http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/1238638/posts

There are other (non-Catholic examples) too.

Imagine if Bob Kerrey was asked to speak at Hillsdale College in Michigan.

I think the only lesson here is that students will complain about commencement speakers if the speaker has politics with which they disagree. Given the size of most universities, the fact that a reporter can find a person (or an alumni group) to complain is not surprising.
5.7.2006 4:37pm
Steve:
The idea of diversity is to listen to people who are saying different things that you might not have thought of or agree with, not just to listen to your friends and people like your friends.

Right, just like conservative students record their liberal professors for David Horowitz. Just like conservatives are trying to block Juan Cole's appointment to Yale. Just like conservatives want to stop the "Homosexual Agenda" from letting kids know that gay people exist.

I don't know why anyone really gives a crap who their commencement speaker is, but it's truly silly to pretend that liberals are the only people who don't necessarily enjoy hearing other points of view.
5.7.2006 4:54pm
Shangui (mail):
So "[i]n all of our classes we're taught the value of inclusion of all people"...except maybe "conservative politician[s] who supports South Dakota's ban on abortion, and [are] avidly pro-Iraq War." Why is tolerance so often just an excuse for a new orthodoxy?

Nathan,
Any evidence that this is the case in classes at the New School or are just assuming it's true? I know some lecturers there and they definitely cover a wide range politically. There are also a number of "non-traditional" students (i.e. past the typical college age) who are a lot less willing to be told only one particular viewpoint in classes.

The title of this post is "Conservative Commencement Speakers Not Welcome" but that's quite misleading. Not only is McCain welcome, he was chosen with full awareness of his political views and there is no indication the invite will be rescinded. Does Lindgren mean that students are wrong to express their dissatisfaction this way? Is Georgetown about to invite the head of Planned Parenthood? And as pointed out, Liberty University is pretty unlikely to invite anyone who is either a democrat or pro-choice to be their graduation speaker.
5.7.2006 4:59pm
DrewSil (mail):
JJB's first post mirrors my thoughts. For any other speach on a university campus a wide variety of viewpoints should be welcomed and encouraged. For comencement, however, the students should get what they want.
5.7.2006 5:18pm
anonymous22:
This analysis misses one key point: John McCain is not any sort of intellectual heavyweight. He's a total opportunist who doesn't stand for anything, a prostitute who adopts popular causes simply to advance his own career: he only started his reformist schtick to cover his own behind after the Keating Five. He is just using the NS platform to boost his own presidential ambitions. He is the worst of the "sound-bite" politicians who has no convictions whatsoever.

I would be outraged if the NS students were complaining about someone who took principled conservative stands and thought them through (think Margaret Thatcher before her health problems), but not...McCain.
5.7.2006 5:21pm
A. Zarkov (mail):
I don't know why anyone really gives a crap who their commencement speaker is, ...

Some of us do. Madeline Albright was the commencement speaker at my daughter's graduation ceremony. I thought she was a particularly bad choice because she gave a speech that was dull and extremely partisan-- partisan to point the point of telling us to vote for Democrats. I don't mind hearing viewpoints that differ from mine if they are well expressed and reasoned. But Albright was the low point of an otherwise outstanding day.

... but it's truly silly to pretend that liberals are the only people who don't necessarily enjoy hearing other points of view.

If you mean a kind of general symmetry where conservatives are just as intolerant of opposing viewpoints, I'm not buying it. It's not conservatives who are behind university speech codes. It's not conservatives who try to have people jailed for speaking against a housing project. I clearly remember Edward Teller being shouted down when he gave a talk at Columbia University circa 1968. I've never seen conservatives try to shout down a speaker or throw pies.
5.7.2006 5:47pm
Nobody Special:
How about UCLA Law as a testbed?

For 2005, the commencement speaker was Linda Sanchez, a democratic Congresswoman and alumna, who filled her address with praise for affirmative action, attacks on the Republican control of the House Judiciary Committee on which she sits, and a nonsensical argument about how Republicans controlling the Congress and the Presidency somehow violates the separation of powers.

There were no interruptions or disrespectful behavior.

For 2006, the commencement speaker will be Janice Rogers Brown, another alumna.

Want to bet that she does not receive the same respectful treatment, even if she, unlike Rep. Sanchez, studiously avoids abusing the honor by making a political stump speech?
5.7.2006 6:57pm
Cornellian (mail):
Actually I seem to recall that Jodie Foster is actually a pretty intelligent, well educated person, not the usual barely literate airhead type one usually associates with celebrities. One ought not to turn her down as a speaker based on a stereotype about actors in general.

One would hope the student body at UCLA Law is sufficiently mature not to jeer a speech by JRB. That would be really unprofessional.
5.7.2006 9:56pm
Jim Hu:
McCain is a conservative again?
5.8.2006 12:11am
hey (mail):
Cornellian: You are right about Jodie Foster. I would have a problem, however, in that she hasn't done much outside of film in terms of actually contributing. An amazing speaker for Yale (where she has spoken a number of times) or a school with an important art or film program (USC...).

As for the expected maturity of Law schools... given the reaction that Nino gets for regular appearances, which are supposed to be about discussion and academic discourse, I wouldn't expect JRB to emerged unscathed from her appearance.

I do enjoy twisting Liberal institutions like the New School and Brandeis, because they tend to swear up and down that they don't hold positions that they do, obiviously hold. Many people and organizations of the Left insist that they hold the only decent or centrist position, rather than acknowledging that they are one point on a political spectrum. Liberty and Hillsdale have no pretensions or illusions as to their place. Taking advantage of the delusions of one's opponents is a little bit of political fun.
5.8.2006 12:12am
Nobody Special:
"One would hope the student body at UCLA Law is sufficiently mature not to jeer a speech by JRB. That would be really unprofessional."

More likely they'll do something different like stand and turn their backs to her and claim that doing so was somehow "respectful" protest.
5.8.2006 1:05am
JJB (mail):
Hey -- I don't know anything about Brandeis, but I don't think that the New School has any illusions about being a liberal school. That's partially why I think it is appropriate for students there to oppose McCain as a graduation speaker. I go to NYU law and I was very disappointed with the way that Justice Scalia was treated when he came here last year. I just think that this is a completely different situation. Also, as far as I can tell, the New School students have been completely respectful in the way they've gone about opposing McCain's invitation.
5.8.2006 11:18am
Attila (Pillage Idiot) (mail) (www):
Who cares? McCain isn't exactly the strongest advocate of free speech, anyway.
5.8.2006 12:35pm
Houston Lawyer:
Graduation ceremonies are a ritual to be endured. They could be shortened without complaint by deleting the speeches.
5.8.2006 3:53pm
Erik H.:
<blockquote>
The idea of diversity is to listen to people who are saying different things that you might not have thought of or agree with, not just to listen to your friends and people like your friends.
</blockquote>

Yeah, right. Other points of view are good. DIverse people are good.

You listen to them.

You even take classes from them.

You (if you're smart) respect them, if they're polite, and try to win them over in arguments.

You DON'T, however, generally <b>honor them with high profile speaking arrangements which are linked honorary degrees</b>

Eugene, usually you're smart, but this is simply inane.
5.8.2006 7:45pm
srp (mail):
This sort of thing is why I like the Princeton tradition that the president of the university always gives the commencement speech. It cuts down on the students' risk of being ideologically offended on their graduation day (and saves a buck or two).
5.8.2006 10:02pm