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.