Guy W. Farmer: Politically incorrect graduation speakers
July 19, 2014
Now that graduation season is over, it's instructive to examine how America's colleges and universities choose their graduation speakers in the 21st century.
All too often our colleges are required to submit potential graduation speakers to a political litmus test before inviting them to address graduates.
Three recent cases illustrate what I'm writing about. I always thought one primary purpose of higher education was to expose students to a wide variety of ideas and opinions — a diversity of political thought within the context of academic freedom. But things seem to have changed since I graduated from the University of Washington in Seattle many years ago. Following are the three recent examples of political correctness:
Early this spring Brandeis University rescinded an offer of an honorary degree to the provocative Somali-born writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whose criticism of Islam for antifeminist tendencies was dubbed "hate speech" by the PC Police. Apparently, it's OK to blaspheme Christians and make fun of them, but woe to those who criticize Islam. Ms. Hirsi Ali has been facing death threats for a decade now for telling the truth about how Islam treats women.
Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice backed out of the Rutgers commencement ceremony after a small but vociferous group of students branded her as a "war criminal" for her role in the Bush administration's war on terror. Rice, gracious as always, explained she didn't "wish to be a distraction for the university community at this very special time." She's a class act; Rutgers should be ashamed of itself.
French economist Christine Lagarde, the first woman to head the International Monetary Fund (IMF), withdrew from her planned appearance at Smith College in the face of student protests against the IMF's alleged suppression of women in poor countries. Smith's president, Kathleen McCartney, said militant protesters got what they wanted, "but at what cost to the university?"
So this is what's going on at our left-leaning institutions of higher learning while parents scrimp and save in order to assure their children receive a coveted "college education."
These examples of university censorship of politically incorrect graduation speakers reminds me of author George Orwell's "groupthink" in a world where Big Brother tells us what to think. We haven't come to that point yet but colleges that control what their graduation speakers say should be denounced loudly and often. Shame on them.
A recent Arizona Republic editorial spoke for me when it asked a pertinent (or impertinent) question: "Has the academy ever been this weak? We ask because we don't know what to make of all the shrinking violets at U.S. colleges and universities who fear the freely expressed views of commencement speakers they can't tolerate." Since, 2009, the paper added, 95 protests have led to 39 commencement speaker cancellations. That's a sad record in a country that places a high value on political diversity and freedom of speech.
As Time magazine's David Von Drehle noted, "If America's treasured institutions of higher learning are to remain bastions of free speech and arenas of robust debate, there must be grownups ready to defend those ideals."
I hasten to add the Nevada System of Higher Education has a pretty good record on this score. I'm unaware of any UNR or UNLV graduation speakers who have been disinvited because of their politics. That's a record worth defending and protecting because our universities will be in trouble the moment they allow the politically correct police to choose graduation speakers. I congratulate our 2014 graduates and urge them to keep an open mind on political issues.
Guy W. Farmer is the Appeal's senior political columnist.