OPINIONS

The Rutgers controversy in retrospect: Gates, Bloomberg and Petraeus

“You and your fellow students…are therefore to be congratulated for your involvement in the excellent work of bringing back the Middle Ages,” Yale Law School professor Stephen Carter ‘76 wrote last Thursday. In his acidly penned “Dear Class of 2014: Thanks for Not Disinviting Me,” Carter responded to controversies at Rutgers University and Smith College over the selections of Condoleezza Rice and Christine Lagarde as their commencement speakers. (Ditto for Haverford College and Robert Birgenau; Brandeis University went so far as to withdraw its offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, although she wasn’t scheduled to speak at its commencement.) A former managing editor of The Stanford Daily (and a former Stanford commencement speaker himself), one imagines that Carter would be amused to see that this piece has relevance to Stanford as well.

This isn’t to say, mind you, that Bill and Melinda Gates are in any danger of having their Stanford invitations rescinded, or that Stanford is a university whose students and faculty are actively opposing, in Carter’s view, “tolerance and open-mindedness.” It is both instructive and in a certain sense heartening to see that the Stanford students involved in the Gates Foundation, Divest from G4S group are not disputing the Gates’ right to speak on June 15, but merely the Foundation’s investments.

That attitude is reflected in the student body’s reaction to other speakers on campus. While it was uncomfortable to sit in Cemex Auditorium while a protestor screamed at General David Petraeus for allegedly committing war crimes, the anti-Petraeus movement remained an isolated event. The line to see the General speak — let alone the silent majority that supported the General’s visit — was considerably longer than the line of protestors that had gathered to bury him. And while Daily columnist Taylor Brady was every bit as critical in his condemnation of last year’s commencement speaker Michael Bloomberg as Carter was of the students at Rutgers and Smith, he did not go so far as to call in The Daily for Bloomberg to be axed.

But even though Stanford students may not be reacting viciously to Mr. and Mrs. Gates, Carter’s point is one worth dwelling on.

What is the point of a commencement speech? And what does that mean about the people who should be invited to deliver them?

“Commencement should be a time of joyous celebration for the graduates and their families,” Rice kindly wrote as she withdrew from the Rutgers commencement. Lagarde responded with similar grace. And commencement does mean a lot for the students; the completion of an undergraduate education has a certain importance in American culture that is replicated nowhere else.

In a country where 32 percent of the over-25 population has a bachelor’s degree and completing college is considered the gateway to the middle class, high school is not considered enough education, while advanced degrees — while increasingly critical — do not embody the same kind of social leap. Going to college is part of the modern American Dream. For that reason, many students contend, commencement speeches are about the people who are commencing the rest of their lives — that is to say, themselves.

That argument has been extended to the recent spate of commencement revolts. A speaker, Rice’s opponents at Rutgers contended, should represent and articulate not just the values but also the actions that the students choose. I would argue that Professor Rice has represented and articulated these values and actions. Yet it’s clear that enough students (although not necessarily a majority) at Rutgers disagree such that Rice felt that she would be a distraction to the ceremonies as a whole.

That is a shame. At the very least, Rice would say something worth hearing. Commencement is for students, that is true. But Stanford invites people like Michael Bloomberg and David Petraeus and Bill and Melinda Gates to campus so that they can spread wisdom, not celebrate who we are. Professor Rice’s decision to withdraw was, as The Daily Beast’s Kristen Anderson explained, the “regrettable right thing.”

***

What should we make of Professor Carter’s righteous anger? Certainly — and Carter is wise to avoid implying this — students at Rutgers, Smith and Haverford did not reject their commencement speakers because these speakers would say things at the ceremony that they did not want to hear. Rather, students are aware that giving a commencement speech confers a certain legitimacy on its speaker that, as with the completion of college itself, is difficult to replicate. Professor Rice does not need to speak at Rutgers or Smith or Haverford or Stanford to enhance her own reputation, but speaking at these schools — whether intentional or not — would imply those schools’ own support of her. That’s why these honors matter so much. As Harvard’s James Bryant Conant pointed out:

“In terms of the immediacy of political and military history, it is incomprehensible, for example, why in the days of the English civil wars the victorious generals of the parliamentary armies, Fairfax and Cromwell, should take the trouble to journey to Oxford to receive the degrees of Doctors of Laws, honoris causa, particularly incomprehensible when as a contemporary wit remarked they had already made themselves ‘Masters of Laws’ by force of arms.”

I understand that there are many people who would want to deny others that kind of legitimacy. But how, then, do we determine who gets through and who gets denied? There was no majoritarian referendum of students condemning Rice or Lagarde or Birgenau. The faculty council at Rutgers lodged its opposition, but the Rutgers protest was no Free Speech Movement, and as a Rutgers senior put it, “This is only about 300 students protesting for a student body of over 10,000.” (That’s just seniors: Rutgers’ largest campus, New Brunswick, alone serves nearly 40,000 undergraduates.) The Smith student petition against Lagarde gathered fewer than 500 signatures; Smith enrolls more than 3,000. And while I am sure that there were — as with the other two institutions — some students at Haverford that objected to Birgenau’s selection, only about 40 students actually signed the original letter condemning it.

Where, then, do we draw the line? How many people need to reject a speaker before their protests become worthy of our consideration? Can I simply reject my commencement speaker (or, in Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s case, a designated honoree at my commencement) because I don’t like that speaker’s politics? What if other people disagree with me?

I’m not saying that student views are irrelevant, but they are diverse enough that we can’t simply reject extremely qualified — nay, overqualified — speakers simply because some people oppose them. This is not a stance of moral relativism — there are clearly speakers out there that nobody would accept — but none of the people involved fall into a purely absolutist sphere. We can debate what these people have done, and in the meantime we should treat their views as worthy of respect, which they are.

Circling back to the start, I don’t believe that all of Carter’s criticisms of the student protests are right. “In my day, the college campus was a place that celebrated the diversity of ideas,” Carter writes, painting with a broad brush; but that feeling is not dead. We may not be holding sit-ins on campus and proposing alternative views of human society, as happened in Carter’s day, but we have freedom of opinion nonetheless.

But the majority is too often shouted down, and consequently the popular stereotype of colleges is increasingly taken for the reality. People reacted loudly when a Harvard Crimson columnist criticized the concept of academic freedom, but the silent majority is normally as silent as the term implies. To a certain extent, silence is only natural; nobody sees the need to scream about something of which they approve. But clearly the state of affairs has turned the other way.

The legitimacy conferred by a college commencement speech — ironically, the very thing that protesters seek to protect — is threatened if these speeches are subordinated to political concerns. The silent majority needs to speak up and defend Rice’s and Lagarde’s and Birgenau’s right to speak. In the long run, I am confident that history will right itself; Stanford remains and must remain, as Carter said in his commencement speech, “a tradition characterized by a continuous commitment to the power of reason.” Today, though, it seems like we gauge student views — both on these campuses and across the country — based not on reason nor even how the general student body feels but on who among it shouts the loudest.

 

Contact Winston Shi at wshi94 “at” stanford.edu.

About Winston Shi

Winston Shi is an opinions columnist and senior staff writer for The Stanford Daily and was the Managing Editor of Opinions for Volume 245 (February-June 2014). He also sits on The Daily's Editorial Board. Previously, he worked at The Daily as a staff writer for the sports section. He is a junior from Thousand Oaks, California and majors in history. In his free time, he likes to read, travel and write about himself in the third person. Contact him at wshi94@stanford.edu.
  • JC

    A tremendous piece of writing!

  • Older Thanyou

    Interesting choice of phrasing, “silent majority”. In a well thought essay on the importance of symbolism and at what point does your organization’s invitation begin to reflect poorly on the members of the organization, using a phrase from President Nixon is curious.
    For those unfamiliar, President Nixon asserted he represented the silent majority of people who didn’t agree with the “liberal, hippy values” of the early-mid 60’s. Nixon said a lot of things such as he’d end the war in Viet Nam and he was not crook and finally, he was quitting. He said that he’d done nothing wrong, yet his hand picked successor, President Ford, quickly pardoned him for anything he did (and may have done).
    That being said, your parting salvo is worrisome. Because you may not agree with the opposition’s point of view doesn’t necessarily make their argument shouting or noise. We will agree that shouting down Gen. Petreaus lacks class, I admire the General’s gumption for speaking at a venue that may not be friendly. If only Presidents Bush, Cheney and Obama would be so brave.
    Dr. Rice had it right; graduation is about the student. Her actions make her a divisive character. Graduation is about bringing diverse people together. Dr. Rice hasn’t yet proven she’s good at that.

  • ThankYou

    One can argue that it was the “silent majority” that supported Lincoln during Civil War, FDR during WWII, Truman for the establishment of the State of Israel, and LBJ for the passages of the Civil Rights Act and subsequently the Voting Rights Act. Nixon could claim that he had the support of “silent majority” all day long, the fact remains that he resigned in disgrace – but, that did not make “silent majority” any less of a formidable force in America.
    The key issue here is whether the universities had the moral motives to invite these speakers – in absence of evidences showing otherwise, we shall confidently say yes. Then, the question is whether the universities should easily cave in just because there were oppositions which however did not appear to have legitimacy to claim for the majority. The answer to that should be a resounding no, for democracy is also about defending and upholding the rights of those who also happen to believe in their judgments, at least initially – the fact that these universities eventually chose to rescind their invitations demonstrated their lack of convictions and will to uphold principals, which was quite disappointing.

  • Winston Shi

    Thank you for your note.

    The “silent majority,” amusingly enough, might have been a phrase borrowed from Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage or union leader George Meany or, most likely, a speech by Spiro Agnew. Regardless of what you think of Nixon, however, I think that the connotations of the phrase in this context are accurate as well. Some criticisms of the would-be speakers have come from moderates and the right wing (e.g. the Tea Party vs. Christine Lagarde and the IMF), but I don’t think I’d be wrong in saying that the anti-Rice, anti-Lagarde, anti-Birgenau and anti-Hirsi Ali movements have been mostly engineered by elements of the far left.

    I do not agree with the opposition’s point of view, and while most critics of the people in question have made their criticisms in a more acceptable manner, the fact of the matter is that a few people have managed to achieve their goals by threatening to co-opt the proceedings. Most people indicated by their silence that the commencement speaker selections were acceptable, and the backlash to the backlash – whether it be from Rutgers students, Smith faculty or Haverford’s replacement commencement speaker – supports that.

    It seems that Rice and Lagarde and Birgenau withdrew (Hirsi Ali’s offer was rescinded, an even more sweeping step) because they either feared or realized that even if there were only a few people standing against them, those people might use the commencement celebrations as a political stunt and ruin the exercises for everybody else. Why else would they stand down when the majority was still in their favor? That’s what I mean by shouting and noise. And that’s a shame.

    In conclusion, regarding your last point, it’s not possible to find a commencement speaker who won’t irritate some people and who won’t be divisive in some way. Quite frankly, any political figure would be divisive. Regardless of your concerns, Professor Rice has served her country and her story is one that a lot of us could learn from; on top of that, she also gives great commencement speeches. So again, the end result is definitely a shame.

    http://www.smu.edu/News/2012/commencement-Condoleezza-Rice-speech

  • Promontorium

    So the first half of your meaningless rant is about Nixon, and nothing at all about this article, and then the second half you find it “worrisome” that someone is criticizing people who shout down other people and refuse to listen, ironic. Also of course you found a way to vaguely suggest Rice is to blame for the ignorance of students. Nice try though. Not really, but you have a knack for using a lot of words to make absolutely no argument.

  • Older Thanyou

    Thank you for the thoughtful reply. You provided clarity.
    While I admire Dr. Rice I can’t admire her service to our country. She’s smart, articulate, cultured and interesting. Serving one’s country can be honorable. However, it doesn’t make one honorable. Timothy McVeigh. Enough said.

  • François Cornilliat

    Hello,
    I encountered your piece on the internet, and – speaking of “who shouts the loudest” – I want to say it was truly refreshing to read your thoughtful criticism after the torrents of mindless abuse the Rutgers protesters (I was one of them) have had to endure in the past few months, including Fox News-induced hate mail (and voicemail) and some choice insults at the hands of supposedly respectable columnists. So thank you for using your own column to mount an actual argument instead of screaming. I disagree with a lot of what you say, at least as far as Rutgers is concerned, but I appreciate being reminded that disagreement does not imply contempt and can, instead, foster respect. On the substance of the matter, I would also like to thank you for understanding the difference (most people don’t) between a Commencement speech and regular academic talk, not to mention free speech in the absolute sense. As you point out, the question raised by the honor that is implied by a Commencement address is that of where we should draw the (ethical) line: you understand there is one. You have no doubt that the case of Dr. Rice falls well within that line; I obviously disagree. As you note, the Rutgers protesters – whether students or faculty – were not objecting to Dr. Rice’s politics or opinions, which she would be welcome to express on campus on any regular academic occasion, but to her actions with respect to the launching of the Iraq war and the authorization of torture. We felt that our University should not bestow its highest honors on a person who willfully participated in a campaign of lies about a war of aggression, and in authorizing (and defending) torture practices. It cannot have escaped your attention, although you do not mention it, that with our Commencement speech came an honorary Doctorate of Laws: the latter in particular was, for the reasons I just mentioned, a travesty in our eyes, and I don’t think it was particularly intolerant or “extremist” on our part to say that someone who helped circumvent American and International law should not receive a Doctorate of Laws. I may be ideologically blind, but I have a hard time seeing anything scandalous or even controversial in drawing the line at torture – and at whitewashing torture.
    I also wanted to mention a few facts for context, which could lead you to revise at least some of your assumptions: 1) the decision to invite Dr. Rice was made in secret, a least a year before it was announced, by a small group of administrators, for unexplained reasons (though very probably political ones), and in complete contempt of the consultation procedures that had until then been the norm in such matters; after which (speaking of a “small minority” imposing its views on a “silent majority”) we (i.e. the community in the name of which the honors would be bestowed) were all supposed, lest we stifle “free speech,” to nod in grateful agreement and awe of Dr. Rice’s star power; 2) the protesters, so far as I know, had no intention to disrupt Commencement, precisely for the reason you mention; the faculty contemplated not attending, wearing an armband or, at most, for some of us, turning our backs in silent protest; the students, so far as I know (they had their own movement, which was not coordinated with ours), had similar scruples and intentions; they might conceivably have held a rally outside the stadium, but no one talked of ruining the ceremony for everyone else. As for why Dr. Rice chose to withdraw, I respect the reason she gave, but that does not make the protesters guilty of silencing her: as you know, some Commencement speakers have decided to take their chances and face dissent, often to excellent effect; 3) your argument against the disproportionate power of minority protesters has weight, but surely you can see that it only goes so far: many if not most movements, good or bad, start as minority actions of some sort, and calling such dissent “shouting” or (worse) “shouting down” a priori, as though the silence of others were somehow a result or effect of the shout in question, is the one part of your analysis which, in my opinion, is truly wrongheaded. For the record, the Rutgers protesters never claimed to speak (or shout) for the majority, but only for what they felt was right; and their numbers, although small, were not insignificant: apart from the 300 students or so you mention, 376 Rutgers faculty members signed a petition against the invitation, and a poll organized by the AAUP found that 65% of the faculty shared that position. Only a handful of those would place their politics on the “far left,” and most of the faculty protesters (myself included) were not experienced activists: they simply but strongly felt that the misguided (or cynical) decision to honor Dr. Rice and forget history forced them to take a stand.

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  • Rumionemore

    Re: Petraeus, there are two possible reasons students protested his speech:
    1. They had read The Guardian’s article about his involvement in torture teams in Iraq. And The Guardian is always on target, or it doesn’t published. (Few U.S. media used it.)
    2. They wanted to see the sensational “lover boy” who had attracted a good-looking, much-younger woman who cost him his career and, for the most part, his reputation, such as it was.

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