American commencement ceremonies are not mandatory for graduates to attend, technically. But students have spent countless hours hitting the books. They have paid for classes with loans, scholarships, night jobs, and assistance from family. These events are thus seen as crazy expensive rites of passage that Thou Shall Not Miss.
Universities put on the dog for parents and other potential donors with receptions and after parties. Big name speakers are invited to give commencement addresses as a way of lending star power to the ceremony. This year, that’s where the public relations nightmare began.
Student activists at dozens of universities protested and lobbied against proposed commencement speakers, for reasons various and sundry. Commencement protests are nothing new, of course, but this year the activists scored several more high profile victories than usual. People noticed. USA Today reported that anti-PC critics have coined a mocking term for the months leading up to graduation: “disinvitation season.”
Former secretary of state Condoleeza Rice was the biggest scalp. She bowed out of the Rutgers commencement after student activists protested her role in the Iraq war. Brandeis withdrew its invitation to honor controversial Muslim apostate and refugee Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Smith protesters kept International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde away from the dais. Haverford activists kept former Berkeley chancellor Robert Birgeneau’s commencement speech from commencing.
It’s not just conservatives who worry about the rise of campus censoriousness. Stand-in commencement speaker and former Princeton president William Bowden called Haverford protesters “immature and, yes, arrogant” to their faces. Bowden said their successful effort to bully Birgenau out of speaking over complaints of how Berkeley had handled some Occupy protesters was “a defeat, pure and simple, for Haverford.”
The latest commencement ruckus gave us a window into how utterly intolerant most modern colleges are becoming, at every level. The Nation contributor Michelle Goldberg points to the successful protests as only the latest example of the rise of the “anti-liberal left” in American higher education. “There are probably leftists who want to shut up all kinds of people, but they have no ability do so. They have no power in American life. But they have power on college campuses,” she told Vox.
And they aren’t shy about flexing that power. At many universities, professors, students and administrators alike are taking steps to silence, shout down, punish, even assault those with dissenting viewpoints. Sometimes that effort is aimed at outside voices. Millions saw this in the commencement address protests, to the chagrin of poor college fundraisers.
Fewer saw it much more clearly in a disturbing incident at UC Santa Barbara this March. Pro-life students, many from the nearby conservative Catholic Thomas Aquinas college, were displaying some graphic signage in the university’s tightly circumscribed “free speech zone.” Even there, such blatant freedom of expression about one of the most important issues of our era could not be allowed to stand.
A gaggle of feminists, led by a professor, allegedly circled the pro-lifers, chanting “Tear down the sign!” When that didn’t happen, they stole the sign, called the pro-lifers “terrorists,” and intentionally cut the display up into little bitty pieces. One pro-life girl was assaulted when she tried to take her group’s property back.
Current chancellor Michael Young blamed the pro-lifers for inciting people and gave Santa Barbara students useful advice for how to avoid such lawsuit-inviting, sign-stealing incidents in the future. They should drop a dime on them and leave the harassment up to trained experts.
At the same time as protesters were scoring victories against listening to speakers with whom they disagreed and campus feminists were literally destroying the means of free speech they found abhorrent, universities were toying with mandating “trigger warnings” in syllabi and classroom instruction.
Reported the New York Times, “Colleges around the country this spring have been wrestling with student requests for what are known as ‘trigger warnings,’ explicit alerts that the material they are about to read or see in the classroom might upset them…”
The most depressing and predictable part of that sentence is, “student requests.” At one time, it was at least comforting to think that kids went to college to get an education — to learn things they did not know, read books they had not read, and ponder questions that they might not even think to ask on their own. This is no longer the case.
Today’s students, not so far removed from their adolescence, are saying, “We have already decided what we think. Do not challenge us with any foreign and dangerous ideas.” Professors and administrators are proving happy to help keep their pupil’s minds slammed shut.
Jeremy Lott is an editor of Rare.