As more and more speakers back out of what is traditionally seen as a speech less about politics and more about dispensing pearls of wisdom to newly minted graduates, two factors are at play: politics (don't act surprised) and what some see as a shift from academia embracing the free exchange of ideas to shunning those with divergent opinions.
"There’s no two ways about it, and it's something that I consider myself politically liberal but it’s just a fact: you are more likely to withdraw your name or be successfully disinvited if you’re socially conservative or a member of the Bush administration," said Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. "It’s because universities tend to be liberal and it’s human nature that you tend to disagree with people."
Lukianoff's organization, known as FIRE, has done preliminary research into how many speakers have withdrawn their names, had invitations revoked or been the subject of protests for commencement speeches during the school year. There have been at least 145 instances since 1987, with almost 100 of those coming in the last five years.
Butler University deemed Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts "too controversial" to speak in 2010. Conservative commenter Ann Coulter was uninvited from a speech at Fordham University in 2012. Students have complained or protested about former Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo, Dick Cheney and Mitt Romney speaking on campus. Hillary Clinton's invitation to speak at the College of St. Catherine in 2008 was rescinded and Kathleen Sebelius was the subject of student protests when she spoke at Georgetown University's graduation in 2012. First Lady Michelle Obama's planned speech at a Kansas high school sparked criticism by people who worried that there would be limited space and political undertones.
(Also the subject of student protests: actor James Franco, Sean "Diddy" Combs and Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi. But we digress).
"I have been surprised at the number of recent bailouts by speakers themselves instead of standing their ground," said Cary Nelson, a professor of English at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and former president of the American Association of University Professors. "When a speaker backs out, it does somewhat compromise academic freedom.”
This year, it seems as though the number of withdrawals and protests about commencement speakers has reached a crescendo.
Earlier this month former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice withdrew her decision to speak at Rutgers University commencement after students and faculty objected to her role in the Iraq war. Some students at Harvard University are opposed to former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg speaking at graduation, and students and faculty at Rowan University have created a petition protesting that the school is awarding its commencement speaker, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, with an honorary degree. Robert J. Birgeneau, the former chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, declined an invitation to speak at Haverford College's commencement after students objected to a use of force by police during 2011 Occupy movement protests on campus.
Last year, former Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick didn't speak at the graduation of his alma mater, Swarthmore College, after students said his involvement in the Bush administration and strong support for the Iraq war conflicted with its Quaker roots. Dr. Ben Carson withdrew from addressing graduates of Johns Hopkins University after students voiced unhappiness about his comments on same-sex marriage.
"We used to joke about this as disinvitation season," Lukianoff said. "It was an inside joke at FIRE and then it stopped being funny because it just kept getting more intense. To me this is the natural result of speech codes and an environment on campuses that tells students they have a right not to be offended and that turns out to the right to be confirmed when you don’t want someone you don’t agree with on campus."
An extreme example, Lukianoff said, is when Long Island University had Kermit the Frog address graduates at its Southampton College graduate campus in 1996. "I'm a big fan of Kermie," he said, "But I'm afraid that's we're headed."
Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, said it's up to the board of trustees of a university to ensure that there is room for unpopular speech on campus and to make it clear that differing perspectives will be accommodated.
"Our campuses have become islands of intolerance where a small group of close-minded students and faculty can cut off discussion. It’s not so much a right/left political problem as it is a political correctness problem," Neal said. "And it’s a failure of leadership. The academy, in too many places, has become one-sided, coercive and hostile to a multiplicity of perspectives."
Nelson thinks in some ways it's "kind of inevitable" that there will be protests against conservatives at traditionally progressive campuses. But barring those people from speaking, he said, violates free speech and the sharing of ideas that he said is central to any institution of higher learning.
Nelson, who protested in college and continues to do so in certain instances today, said that commencement speeches have a history of being volatile. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a women's rights and atheist activist who has made scathing remarks about Islam, had an invitation to receive an honorary degree at the commencement of Brandeis University revoked after students and faculty protested. Nelson said he believes the president of the university "did not observe his finest hour" by backing down.
More and more, Nelson said, colleges and universities feel they need to reach a higher degree of consensus on a graduation speaker.
"Rather than use this rule of thumb that every single position deserves a voice on campus, people tend to want to feel this is someone I endorse, and if you want a campus to feel unity and endorsement around a speaker you have to go through a much more elaborate process," he said.
Nelson should know. This year he was on a faculty panel to help choose a commencement speaker at Illinois; he said the names of three businessmen were floated but rejected because some were uncomfortable with their corporate practices. Students will hear from Col. Michael S. Hopkins, an astronaut and alum, at graduation May 17.