Lessons from commencement
Published: Sunday, May 25, 2014 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, May 23, 2014 at 4:24 p.m.
The college students who forced several speakers to cancel commencement addresses in recent weeks have it all wrong.
If you don't like your commencement speaker, don't make the person go away. Just go away yourself.
That's the approach that I took with my commencement at Ohio State University in 2000. The speaker was J.C. Watts, a former University of Oklahoma quarterback and four-term U.S. representative.
One of the only black Republicans in Congress, he once referred to Jesse Jackson and Marion Barry as “race-hustling poverty pimps.” I thought he was a bad choice for commencement speaker.
I had a convoluted list of reasons, centered around the message sent by having a right-wing speaker at a time when Ohio State was engaged in a labor battle with its dining hall workers and janitors. But to be honest, the real reason was that I didn't like Watts' politics and was mad that he was giving the parting words to my graduating class.
I decided to call on my fellow students to “Walk out on Watts” at commencement. I hung fliers on campus and wrote a column for the student newspaper. My big idea was an alternative commencement with a janitor as the speaker.
I even met with some liberal student groups to try to get their support. As often happens when liberals get together, no one could agree on anything. Instead of walking out, other students wanted to turn their backs or click noisemakers.
I did indeed end up walking out with a friend. But instead of some high-minded alternative commencement, we just went to a bar across the street during the speech. Some attendees did click noisemakers and others were arrested for standing up and turning their backs, blocking views.
I've been thinking of the experience lately thanks to recent protests against commencement speakers. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pulled out of speaking at Rutgers University after objections to her involvement in the Iraq War.
Haverford College students opposed Robert J. Birgeneau, the former chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley, for his role forcefully dispersing an Occupy protest in 2011. They issued a number of demands, including Birgeneau writing an open letter about what he had learned. He instead decided not to speak.
Former Princeton University President William G. Bowen filled in and scolded the protesters, calling them “immature” and saying they should have encouraged Birgeneau to come and have a genuine discussion.
I agree that blocking speech is a bad idea. In the years since my commencement, I've developed a greater appreciation of the value of listening to opposing views. There seems to be an epidemic of shutting off people with different viewpoints, and the country is a poorer place for it.
Which is all to say that I missed my commencement speaker, but still learned a few things from the experience.