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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This isn’t to say, mind you, that Bill and Melinda Gates are in any danger of having their Stanford invitations rescinded, or that Stanford is a university whose students and faculty are actively opposing, in Carter’s view, “tolerance and open-mindedness.”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.”

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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.

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