It’s open season on commencement speakers! Ayaan Hirsi Ali gets uninvited from Brandeis, and now, in the face of shrill student protests, Condoleeza Rice “withdraws” from Rutgers, International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde does the same at Smith, and former chancellor of UC Berkeley takes a pass from the Haverford commencement.
What’s going on out there?
Alas, we know perfectly well. Small (we can hope) groups of politically correct fanatics “protest” the invitation to certain famous people to speak at their university’s commencement. Their protests escalate to the point where either the admin caves in and withdraws the invitation (Hirsi Ali), or the environment becomes sufficiently poisonous that the speaker, to his/her credit, declares “What do I need this for?” and withdraws.
Of course, students have every right to not approve of the choice of commencement speaker. And they have the freedom to say so. And the admin has both the right and the freedom to behave like complete idiots. So I have no legal, or even operational, beef with what is going on. But it’s instructive, isn’t it?
First, let’s take the loonytunes nature of the complaints themselves.
Start with Brandeis. In previous years, the admin (admittedly, different people than today) saw no problem with Desmond Tutu, who has compared Israel to Hitler and used the words “powerful” and “scary” to attack “the Jewish lobby. No problem, either, with playwright Tony Kushner, who has called the creation of Israel a “mistake.” Very tolerant, considering Brandeis is a Jewish-sponsored university. But when Ayaan Hirsi Ali refers to Islam as “the new fascism,” all of a sudden it’s bad. “Certain of her past statements,” says the Brandeis admin, “are inconsistent with Brandeis University’s core values.” And so she gets the chop. (Why did they invite her to begin with?)
On to Smith, where students objected to Christine Lagarde for her role, as head of the IMF, in “strengthening the imperialist and patriarchal systems that oppress and abuse women worldwide.” Shame on her, indeed.
And then Rutgers, whose students object to Condi Rice as a “war criminal.”
And finally, Haverford, where the students protest the fact that Robert Birgeneau, when chancellor UC Berkeley in 2011, allowed the campus police to mistreat some Occupy protesters in 2011. Mind you, he can still come to Haverford — if he is willing to apologize, fight for reparations for the abused students, and write a letter stating why he was wrong and what he learned from the experience. I’m serious.
Birgeneau did write a letter — saying thanks, but no thanks.
None of this should be surprising. It’s just more evidence that universities — particularly, in the so-called liberal arts — have become centers of strident intolerance. Like the Red Guards of Mao’s Cultural Revolution (who were about the same age), today’s young PC-driven zealots impose their rigid, simplistic views — banning, barring, uninviting, exiling. Only if you repent and recant may you be admitted back into the circle. It’s a miracle they haven’t called (yet) for re-education camps.
If there’s any good news to be found in all this, it’s that it simply accelerates the process under which so many universities are fleeing from the real world. We don’t need to push them, they are doing it to themselves. Their shallow curricula, bloated structures and costs, and utter detachment from the needs of their customers, will eventually make them disappear. They will be replaced by a leaner, more responsive, more flexible, more creative higher education industry. There will be a true diversity — of ideas, of methods, of pathways to learning (including much more opportunity for “older” people to go back to school).
In the meantime, though, we are left with a short-term crisis: where we can we find acceptable commencement speakers?
Fortunately, I have the answer:
Think about it — Big Bird would be perfect. Well known but inoffensive; lovable, articulate, and with a limitless supply of feel-good cliches, utterly at home with PC-driven language.
What’s more, an established resume as a commencement speaker! I’m not kidding. Villanova, 2004.
Well…to be fair, not quite. It was the Big Bird puppeteer, Caroll Spinney, who actually got the invite. And, wouldn’t you know it, according to a poll in the student newspaper, 68% of the students thought someone else would have been more suitable.