Of Shoes and Ships and Sealing Wax–and Commencement Speakers

I found myself really annoyed in the last week when I came across the many cases of faculty approvingly endorsing the fate of commencement speakers like Robert Birgeneau and Christine Lagarde, and scolding William Bowen for scolding students for their scolding of Birgeneau.

The approving remarks of faculty have made some of the following points:

1) commencement is an empty ritual anyway full of platitudes from various elites and therefore who cares, it’s not an important venue for free speech or ideas in the first place

2) a commencement speech isn’t a debate or exchange of ideas, so Bowen’s full of shit when he says that students were trying to shut down a debate or exchange of ideas

3)students (and faculty) were just exercising their own academic freedom by criticizing or rejecting commencement speakers, you can’t tell them to be silent and say you’re championing free speech

4) all of the people criticizing these speakers were perfectly right to criticize them, they aren’t people that we should be honoring anyway

——–

What I want to do mostly is talk about what I think no one is talking about in this discussion, but as a prologue, a response to some of these critiques. The first thing to point out is that “we shouldn’t honor these people” and “commencement is empty and platitudinous” don’t add up very well: you can’t take the event seriously enough to worry about who is and is not honor-worthy and then dismiss it as pointless ritual.

#2 is really a bad point, because it applies to everything that isn’t immediately structured as a dialogue or an exchange. Faculty give lectures in their classes; invited guests give talks that often have minimal or compressed times for “dialogue” at the end, and even then, are dialogic only in the sense of passive audiences getting to ask a question that is or is not answered. If commencement speeches don’t count, then most speech in academic environments by faculty doesn’t count as “dialog” or “debate” either.

Three, on the other hand, is a familiar dog-chasing its own tail point that works against (or for) any position in any argument about the limits of free speech. If the students have the right to protest the speakers, the speakers have the right to protest the students, and so on ad infinitum. This is the kind of position that a free-speech purist can love in a way, but it requires ignoring the actual content of speech and ignoring that speech acts have power beyond their content. The commenters that I’ve seen invoking the right to complain against commencement speakers typically ignore that such complaints in the last two years have asked that the speaker be disinvited or have threatened to disrupt commencement if he or she is not disinvited. But praise for someone like Bowen attacking the students also overlooks that it’s not exactly the soundest pedagogy to harshly call out 18-22 year olds at a ritual of this kind.

What I really want to do is talk about #4: the view that it is self-evident that all of these speakers are bad people who shouldn’t be honored, and that honoring should be saved for those who are worthy of it.

——

Often, that view goes along with an assertion that this stance is not aimed at suppressing academic freedom or viewpoint diversity, that any of these speakers would be welcome at any other event, just not as honorees at commencement.

There are two things that are really wrong with most (though not all) of the current commencement-speaker critiques, and this is the first of them. Let’s suppose that we can make this distinction, between “ordinary” events and “honoring” events. The evidence of the last two years in higher education leave me in considerable doubt that this distinction is meant as anything more than an ad hoc justification, that when you press into what might count as an “ordinary” event, you tend to discover that “ordinary” is only acceptable if Bad People agree to come and meekly submit to a wave of critical indictments.

But let’s suppose the intention to distinguish is genuine. It rests on a difference that people inside of colleges and universities would recognize between types of events, and also between types of invitations and inviters. But this is a distinction that many publics outside of higher education simply don’t see or understand.

Many of my colleagues across higher education seem frustratingly oblivious to the degree of popular as well as political ill-will towards the academy and its prerogatives, or are accustomed to thinking of that ill-will as entirely an ideological product of conservative politics. I don’t think the Obama Administration’s ghastly, destructive current policy initiatives aimed at higher education would be a part of his lame-duck agenda if his team didn’t perceive higher education as a politically advantageous target.

Academic freedom is one of the prerogatives that we tend to treat as a self-evident good, usually against the backdrop of some stirring rhetoric about McCarthyism and censorship and the need for innovative and creative thinking. It’s a harder sell than we guess for two reasons. First, because most scholarship and teaching is actually rather timid and risk-averse due to tenure and the general domesticating force of academic professionalism. Second, because all the other professions have been brought to heel in one way or another. There is literally no other workplace left in America where there is any expectation whatsoever of a right or even a utility to speaking one’s mind about both the subject of work and about the conditions of employment. Once upon a time, at least some of the professions had some similar ideas about the value of professional autonomy and about a privileged relationship between the profession and the public sphere. We’re the last left as far as that goes.

Which means that if we’re going to defend academic freedom, we have to defend it in bluntly absolutist terms. The moment we start putzing around with “Well, not so much at commencement” or “Well, not if the speaker is homophobic” or “Well, not if it’s the IMF, come on, they’re beyond the pale”, we’ve pretty much lost the fight for academic freedom and might as well come out with our hands up. It is not that there aren’t distinctions to be made, but that making fine-grained distinctions and saying, “It’s an academic thing, you wouldn’t understand” is a sure way to appear as hypocrites who don’t understand the value of the right they’re defending if we’re talking to already hostile publics who can be fired at whim for seeming to criticize the choice of pastries at the morning office meeting.

———

Let’s talk about another problem with saying, “Ok, academic freedom, but not for Really Bad People” or “Ok, academic freedom, but not for honoring people”.

This year’s wave of disinvitations started with the Rutgers faculty and students objecting to Condoleeza Rice’s appearance as a commencement speaker.

There is legitimately much to object to about the selection of Rice, and it starts not with Rice herself but with the model that many large research universities use for selecting speakers. Rutgers is especially blighted in this respect, as it is and has been controlled by a number of arrogant, distant administrators whose contempt for the faculty is fairly explicit. Commencement speakers shouldn’t be chosen by a small, secretive clique of board members and top administrators and they shouldn’t cost a dime to bring. When you have to shell out tens of thousands of dollars for a commencement speech, you’re voiding the right to regard it as a special ritual occasion. The transaction in all cases should be: we give you an honorary degree, you show up and say what you will. We’ll fete you and take care of your expenses, but that’s it. And you should be choosing such people in a more consultative fashion. You can’t have the entire community in on it from the beginning–anyone who has been involved in selecting an honorary speaker of any kind knows that there are invitations declined, invitations deferred, invitations lost and found, second choices rediscovered and so on. But you can represent everyone at the outset, if nothing else by genuinely seeking and valuing community suggestions and input.

The problem with the whole debate in the last two years is that commencement critics have typically seen Rutgers as the typical or normal example of how the honorary sausage gets made. And at least in this year’s count of kerfuffles, it’s not. At Smith and Haverford, I’m pretty sure that the process is closer to Swarthmore’s process, which involves an administrator who has been lovingly involved in thinking about speakers for many years and a rotating cast of faculty appointed to a committee, plus solicitations of community suggestions.

I know: I was on the committee one year and in another year, I sent in a suggestion and lo! my suggestion was heeded. So when local critics complained about one selection last year, I took it personally even if the candidate wasn’t my selection and I wasn’t on the committee that year. Because you can’t love the process when it gets you crusaders for social justice and poets and philosophers and inventors and then hate it the one time it gets you someone you don’t like.

I haven’t liked everyone we’ve had in the twenty years I’ve been here. Most years, we select alumni, including last year’s controversial selection, Robert Zoellick. Bill Cosby bored and annoyed me, deep in the dotage of his contempt for higher education. But did I give somebody shit about it afterwards? No, because my colleagues were a part of the choice. And the committee eventually asked all the faculty about it and we shrugged and said ‘eh, whatever’. And Zoellick was suggested similarly and one faculty member said, “I don’t like it”, but the rest of us said either “Yes” or “Eh, whatever”.

So here’s the thing. The other practice that we cherish as faculty that’s under assault nationwide is faculty governance. If your idea, as a faculty member, of faculty governance is that the one person who says, “I don’t like X” should override a committee and a process and an entire faculty, then guess what, we deserve to lose the fight for governance. If your idea of faculty governance is that you demand the outcomes you wanted in the first place after the meeting is done, and think it’s ok to rock the casbah to get there, then we deserve to lose the fight for governance.

When some Smith students and some faculty rise to say, “We don’t want Christine Lagarde to speak because the IMF is imperialist”, they’re effectively saying, “We don’t care who decided that or how”, and thus they’re also embedding an attack on governance along the way. Because surely to disdain the IMF (or the World Bank) so wholly that you will do what you can, what you must, to stop them from being honored guests is to also disdain anyone who might have, in any context, ever have thought otherwise. As, for example, in most Departments of Economics, perhaps here and there in pockets of usage and support and consultancies in other departments as well.

At which point we deserve to lose the fight for academic freedom as well as governance: some of us are seeking to win not a fight against the subjects of their critique “out there” but against intimate enemies, to win what can’t be easily won in committee meetings and faculty senates and classrooms and curricula and enrollments and persuasive addresses to wider publics.

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16 Responses to Of Shoes and Ships and Sealing Wax–and Commencement Speakers

  1. Aaron Bady says:

    You use the term “disinvite,” here, but it seems important that Rice, Birgeneau, and Lagarde all *chose* to withdraw. Not to put too fine a point on it, but how can it be a violation of “academic freedom” if the prospect of student protest made them change their mind about coming?

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    Well, to put too fine a point on it, this particular line of response strikes me as disingenuous, though even Bowen agrees with you. Meaning, ok, you say: we might do something at graduation that will disrupt the ceremony! Not saying what, maybe nothing, but hey, we aren’t the ones who really prevented the person from coming, they didn’t come of their own accord. We only said they shouldn’t come unless they agreed to crawl on broken glass and wear a hairshirt.

    So at that point, the speaker has to decide: should I stay or should I go now? I can actually see how even someone whose moral judgment is as unquestionably broken as Rice might say, “Well, maybe it’s best I don’t”. Not having to see or hear people protesting your speech is at that point a side bonus, because you can pull out and pat yourself on the back as having done the honorable thing.

    So everybody gets what they want out of the situation: activists can say, “We really showed ‘em! Coward!” and the speaker can say, “I’m a better person than them, I really care about commencement”. The only losers are governance in those places where faculty actually played a role in choosing a speaker and academic freedom in the wider culture where most people don’t really care that somebody (maybe) won a small counter-hegemonic game on a chessboard of their own choosing. In some cases, as in the case of our own alum Zoellick, the speaker probably gains cultural capital by being a target.

  3. There’s a lot to agree with in this post, but I have two questions, one about something said in the post and another about something unsaid.

    Something said: “Which means that if we’re going to defend academic freedom, we have to defend it in bluntly absolutist terms.”

    I think by that you meant, we should be consistent in defending academic freedom, even at public events and ceremonies. But it wasn’t clear to me. Why should academic freedom be defended in “bluntly absolutist terms”? I don’t see how it follows from the preceding, unless we assume that “being the last left” implies a special commitment to aboslutist academic freedom. Or perhaps I’m just over-interpreting something meant as hyperbole?

    Something unsaid: are there any hypothetical circumstances where protesting a speaker might be the right thing to do? In other words, could you name any criteria that would make such a protest more palatable? I’m talking more hypothetical and theoretical points that would be “necessary” before a protest can be legitimate, and not necessarily points that would be “sufficient” to justify a protest.

    Perhaps we see some of such criteria in your example of the Rice case. The administration by your account had a poor and heavy handed relationship with faculty and the process for choosing her lacked transparency. Paying her, as you suggest, was also beyond the pale. Finally, I think it’s possible her conduct in office and the types of things she signed off on might be some legitimate area for concern. I’d hate to go too far down that particular rabbit hole because I am a believer in academic freedom. But at the same time, there is probably a point at which a public speaker may have previously acquitted themselves so poorly or done things so atrocious that a protest against that person is something that ought to be endorsed. I’m not saying that Rice necessarily meets that threshold.

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    So, yes, I think you can protest speakers. I think all of the recent letters about commencement speakers would be fine if they’d been written and published as critiques of the speaker without the demand that the speaker not come or the threat of a disruptive protest at the ceremony itself. Or as Bowen himself suggested, there are even forms of protest in the ceremony that would be respectful of the ceremony and aimed at the speaker–essentially a critique from some individuals of another individual, without pretending to involve the institution. It’s the move to protest the institutional selection that overlooks governance and process in many cases.

    I also do think that in some cases the process needs a look, as in the case of Rutgers. But then it’s only a small part of a much larger problem with governance, and in some ways, one of the weakest ways to tackle that problem precisely because it gets tangled up with academic freedom.

  5. Aaron Bady says:

    This kind of hyper-policing of protest drives me crazy, frankly, and I couldn’t care less about the sanctity of governance and process, so I doubt you and I are going to see eye to eye on this. For one thing, the “no true scotsman” effect where every protest is wrong, because of reasons, is the chilling of speech that worries me, especially when, for example, a petition that begins with the sentence

    “The following members of the Smith community request that you reconsider your decision to select Christine Lagarde as the commencement speaker for the class of 2014″

    can be described as a by-any-means-necessary scorched earth policy of crushing all resistance. You wrote that

    “surely to disdain the IMF (or the World Bank) so wholly that you will do what you can, what you must, to stop them from being honored guests is to also disdain anyone who might have, in any context, ever have thought otherwise”

    and in doing so, you misrepresented what the petitioners at Smith actually said, and misleadingly imply that they are going to “do what they must” to stop her from speaking. People at Smith said they “might” protest at the ceremony; is that the kind of protestor who is going to start throwing eggs at their Econ 101 lecturer? This is one of the least slippery slopes I’ve ever seen, except insofar as conflating a *petition* with a desire to eradicate opposing ideologies is a step towards making any and all forms of protest into things no decent person would abide. And that’s the endpoint of all of this that worries me. But I suspect that what it really seems to come down to is your assertion that students and faculty have a responsibility to respect the institution’s ways of doing things. And, respectfully, I think that argument is really weak. A process that produces a commencement speaker to whom a substantial portion of the campus strongly objects is a broken process. I’m not going to argue that Robert Birgeneau is an objectively terrible choice as a commencement speaker, but please understand that I believe this to be the case, and have long experience with the man: he is a disaster in every way, not only morally bankrupt and corrupt but a deeply pedestrian thinker who was guaranteed to produce a truly forgettable speech. The decision to invite him to speak at Haverford–however it came about–was a really bad choice. The question then becomes: how do you change the process by which those really bad choices were made? How can the process at Rutgers, which you acknowledge is problematic, become a better process? In my humble opinion, politely registering one’s distaste for a particular speaker–while scrupulously honoring the institution that selected them–is a good way to ensure that the process by which they were selected remains beyond reproach. Without the kind of actual protest that makes people uncomfortable, dissent is easy to ignore, and usually is.

  6. Timothy Burke says:

    I’m going to write about this soon, but I just met with a bunch of junior Africanists, historians and anthropologists and literary critics, and quite a few of them described recent encounters with students where if eggs were not thrown, they were nevertheless facing serious attacks on their own authority inside and outside the classroom. And this wasn’t activists v. economists, it was activists v. activists. Rather notably, it was junior women and junior faculty of color who were seeing it most intensely. So maybe the slope you think is not slippery has more grease on it already than you’ve seen or are willing to acknowledge.

    On process: if a process, unchanged, 95% of the time produces outcomes that you find quite satisfying and then 5% of the time produces an outcome you don’t like, and then you demand that the process has to be changed so that it never produces an outcome you don’t like, then seriously, you don’t want a process. You don’t want anything remotely resembling collective or shared governance. You want to be anointed King of the Hill and be as autocratic as the worst corporatized manager. Can you imagine a process that will produce 100% of the time a choice that Aaron Bady and those like him will approve of that will NOT produce a result that some other subset of faculty, staff and students do not approve of? Let me know when you’ve got a sketch of what that looks like. It’s pretty fucking hard to defend shared governance when some people’s idea of “sharing” is “I’m right, you’re wrong, fuck off.”

  7. Matt_L says:

    “If your idea, as a faculty member, of faculty governance is that the one person who says, “I don’t like X” should override a committee and a process and an entire faculty, then guess what, we deserve to lose the fight for governance. If your idea of faculty governance is that you demand the outcomes you wanted in the first place after the meeting is done, and think it’s ok to rock the casbah to get there, then we deserve to lose the fight for governance.”

    – Yes, I see this behavior at my institution. It is the old Sejm of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth model of faculty governance . One aristo can shout veto and the whole thing grinds to a halt.

  8. CarlD says:

    My place is in a military town, with a military constituency. And the business school pays the rest of the bills. So I’ve come to your way of thinking through the forced reflection of serial self-defense, listening to one after another dingy functionary or chirpy shill for institutions I find deeply problematic but that make my professional life possible.

    From that perspective, when you say “[m]any of my colleagues across higher education seem frustratingly oblivious to the degree of popular as well as political ill-will towards the academy and its prerogatives, or are accustomed to thinking of that ill-will as entirely an ideological product of conservative politics. I don’t think the Obama Administration’s ghastly, destructive current policy initiatives aimed at higher education would be a part of his lame-duck agenda if his team didn’t perceive higher education as a politically advantageous target,” I agree with the first part but think you may not be all in on the insight. From what I’m seeing, Obama is strategizing a holding action against the massive tide of resentment, disillusionment, and fatigue that the oversell of education has produced over the last couple generations. I agree there’s probably a more positive way to rebrand the product, but ‘ok, we’ll start checking to see if it actually works’ isn’t just a sellout.

  9. Timothy Burke says:

    We’ll check to see if it actually works is fine–I would actually support some version of that.

    “We’ll make a system for checking to see if it actually works that will funnel more money to rich institutions and rich people, that says that education is only proportoinally as good as the money it helps you to make, that dumps a massive new administrative burden on higher education, and that has all sorts of perverse incentives stuck into it”, not so fine.

  10. gruff says:

    It is not that there aren’t distinctions to be made, but that making fine-grained distinctions and saying, “It’s an academic thing, you wouldn’t understand” is a sure way to appear as hypocrites who don’t understand the value of the right they’re defending if we’re talking to already hostile publics who can be fired at whim for seeming to criticize the choice of pastries at the morning office meeting.

    As a working person I cannot emphasize how accurate this is. Academia’s internal squabbles are seen as petty, elitist, and utterly irrelevant to the lives most people lead. This country desperately needs the intelligentsia to start genuinely caring about the poor and working people – *all* of them, not just a handful of fashionable subsets.

  11. lemmy caution says:

    If people want to protest commencement speakers, they should be allowed to protest commencement speakers. I don’t see the problem with that. It is annoying to be protested against, and it is annoying when your picks are protested against; but, free speech is always a little annoying.

  12. DCA says:

    The problem with “allowed to protest commencement speakers” is that this allows an occasion that is really meant as a celebration of the graduates, for themselves and their parents, to be (potentially) disrupted — and to what end? There are settings in which it is useful to agree that “free speech for all” is not really appropriate, and I’d argue that a commencement, which looks like an academic activity but is really a social occasion, falls into this category. Of course, this is an argument for not having commencement speakers at all (aside from local faculty who can congratulate the graduates) — which would be fine by me, though perhaps too big a disruption to be considered.

    All that said, I completely agree with your points about process and governance. Anyone in the academy knows people whose committee service becomes very light because they cannot compromise on anything.

  13. mch says:

    Something is awry or missing in your analysis. I’m not sure what. Perhaps your assumption that faculty or students have any significant input at all into commencement speakers? Certainly not where I teach, at a college not so different from Swarthmore or Smith. At least in recent years, the trustees seem to decide all on their own who will be the speaker — someone the trustees want to please for their own reasons (of business, of political influence, of flash as they understand flash). It’s not easy to challenge these trustees — they are very smart, very accomplished people who give their all to their alma mater, they really do. Which makes it all the more painful to challenge them. But they do need challenging. Have we stopped being their teachers? I wish that “the process” provided a way to challenge them before the announcement appeared in the college newspaper in March….
    Meanwhile, I look forward to the other events at commencement, where I will meet my students’ parents and get to tell them (with heartfelt enthusiasm) how wonderful their children are, how I will miss them in my classes, in my office…. It is, indeed, all about the students who are graduating, which is why the lack of imagination in commencement speakers (all these “economic” and “world” “leaders” — who need to be paid?!?) is so depressing.

  14. mch says:

    Well, our somewhat controversial speaker spoke today. I never would have chosen him, as I think my last comment implied. He gave one of the best commencement addresses I have ever heard — and my reaction conforms to the general consensus. Just thought I should share this.

  15. Ruby says:

    Dear Professor Burke,
    I’ve read your work as part of my History major, in which I’ve paid particular attention to African women’s history, at Smith. I think you’ve made a very thoughtful critique of the assumptions and rhetoric about what free speech and the particular kinds of it that colleges–administrators, faculty, and students–should and do apply to commencement addresses. With due respect, I think that you have failed to do what you consider central issue with protests against Lagarde’s invitation to speak; that protesters failed to see specific, intimate, careful awareness and respect for multiple perspectives as the basis of academic freedom and rights to governance. (I think that that’s what you mean, anyway.) I contest that the vast, vast majority of students who protested Lagarde’s invitation had participated in and tried to start careful, intimate debates since the invitation was announced. Individually and in groups, we repeatedly emailed President McCartney, spoke with classmates, housemates (people sharing dorms, but the culture is more intimate, more committed), professors, and friends about Lagarde–not only about whether, why, and how much we could admire her, but also to discuss how the choice of commencement speaker might relate to that. From my perspective and from friends I have spoken to, on both ‘sides’ of the debate on whether Lagarde is an admirable person and on both ‘sides’ of the debate on whether we should have protested her invitation, the MAIN questions that have been asked were “who decided this and how” and “how can we talk about commencement speaker choices in the future, become better informed, more effectively give input, and be listened to”. It seems to me and others that I’ve spoken with that the majority of proponents for Lagarde’s disinvitation organized gatherings and sit-ins on the President’s lawn, call-a thons to Lagarde, and other more emphatic means of protests BECAUSE repeated requests to the administration for more information were explicitly and repeatedly ignored, with one student/administration meeting climaxing in a dean scolding students that they wouldn’t have a problem if Lagarde were of color.
    Others have written on their perspectives with particular sensitivity to the global and historical social contexts of the protests, including a blog post on how the administration has devalued minority opinions (http://this-reading-by-lightning.tumblr.com/post/85555274165/what-i-sent-to-the-president-of-smith), characterized the protesters’ concerns as invalid through racist imagery (http://neccesaree.tumblr.com/post/86357167186/the-racialized-backlash-against-protestors-at-smith), and an acknowledgement of the determined thoughtfulness that drove the protests (http://mobile.gazettenet.com/search/11984551-108/ginetta-eb-candelario-dont-blame-smith-students-for-raising-imf-issue). I suggest that, to write responsibly, respectfully, and intimately of Smith students in the future, you more mindfully engage with what they actually thought and did.

  16. Nord says:

    http://www.smith.edu/about_commencement.php

    Smith College has a number of speakers that make Lagarde look like a Nobel laureate.

    “repeated requests to the administration for more information were explicitly and repeatedly ignored”

    More information? I think Tim’s point is there have been over 100 years of speakers at Smith, it has been over 25 years since a man has spoken. If you had questions about the process of selecting a speaker for graduation, you’ve had lots of time to think about that. It is the outcome a vocal minority of Smithies didn’t like. So they managed to get Lagarde axed. Even though, outside of US universities, the IMF and World Bank are wide supported and credited with doing more to ameliorate poverty than anything to come out of the Kennedy School …

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