Students at Hopkins protested his remarks and took up a petition for a new speaker. Despite another apology, Carson decided to withdraw on Wednesday. “My presence is likely to distract from the true celebratory nature of the day,” Carson wrote in an e-mail to the dean of the university’s medical school, Paul Rothman. “Commencement is about the students and their successes, and it is not about me,”
Zoellick, a former George W. Bush administration official, was to have received an honorary degree at Swarthmore, but he also pulled out this week after students mounted a campaign on Facebook calling him an “architect of the Iraq war” and a “war criminal” for his support of the 2003 invasion. Although Zoellick did support the war, he did not plan it; he was Bush’s U.S. trade representative and later worked to resolve the conflict in Darfur as a State Department official. He ran the World Bank from 2007 until last year.
As the attacks on Zoellick mounted last month, Swarthmore’s student newspaper, the Daily Gazette, exercised its own free speech by mocking the controversy. In an April Fool’s Day edition, it wrote that the school “would not be offering degrees to any member of the Class of 2013 who does not intend to found a vegan coffee shop after graduation, calling other professional choices ‘antithetical to Swarthmore values.’ ”
But figures on the left have received similar treatment as well. Weeks of protest by anti-abortion advocates, for example, preceded President Obama’s commencement address at Notre Dame University in 2010. Also that year, the University of Wyoming canceled a speech by former 1960s radical William Ayers after hundreds objected.
Meanwhile, protests flared this week at Yeshiva University’s Cardozo School of Law in New York after it gave its “International Advocate for Peace Award” to former president Jimmy Carter on Wednesday. A group of Cardozo alumni set up a Web site calling on the school’s graduates to withdraw their financial support to protest Carter’s criticism of Israel.
At the least, the current climate of protest strikes former university president Robert O’Neil as reasonably civilized. When O’Neil headed the University of Wisconsin in the early 1980s, a student group invited former Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver to speak. His first appearance was canceled because of security concerns; a second appearance led to violence between rival student groups and eight arrests for disorderly conduct. Cleaver cut his speech short.
“What people see as evidence of political correctness [today] is not what’s going on,” says O’Neil, who also ran Indiana University and the University of Virginia during his academic career. “The harshest thing I see is that we engage more in self-censorship, but that’s a long way from succumbing to political correctness. It’s not P.C. to make a special effort to respect people’s beliefs and to try to accommodate them.”
Rather than viewing the campus climate as evidence of growing censorship, O’Neil sees it as more hospitable to open debate. “The discourse is more orderly,” he says. “There’s more willingness to reason. People don’t always agree, and they can disagree aggressively, but that’s how the marketplace of ideas works.”