William Bowen’s welcome response to university commencement “disinvitation season”

It’s “disinvitation season.”   Several high-profile commencement speakers have been “disinvited” or have withdrawn from university commencement ceremonies in response to student and faculty protests.  First Ayaan Hirsa Ali was deemed too controversial for Brandeis University.  Then former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice withdrew from commencement at Rutgers University after students and faculty objected due to her role promoting the Iraq War and counter-terror policies during the Bush Administration.

More recently, Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, withdrew from Smith College’s commencement in the face of protests over various IMF policies.  Abby Phillip noted the irony that “one of the most accomplished and powerful women in the world” was apparently unfit to address Smith’s graduates.  She wrote:

Will ousting Lagarde as Smith commencement speaker undo the perceived ills of the IMF? Probably not. But it all but ensures that Lagarde’s perspective won’t be represented at Smith on Sunday.

Last week, another commencement speaker bowed out.  Robert Birgeneau, former Chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley withdrew from Haverford College’s commencement.  As the Philadelphia Inquirer reported:

Birgeneau is known for his support of undocumented and minority students, but became controversial when students, as part of the Occupy movement, held non-violent protests and were subject to force by university police. . . .

At Haverford, the controversy began after more than 40 students and three professors – all Berkeley alums — wrote a letter to Birgeneau, urging him to meet nine conditions including publicly apologizing, supporting reparations for the victims, and writing a letter to Haverford students explaining his position on the events and “what you learned from them.”

Birgeneau declined in a short, sharply-worded letter.

The protesters may not have had to hear Birgeneau, but they may not  have liked what they got instead: A rebuke from former Princeton President William G. Bowen.  In his remarks at Haverford today, Bowen lambasted the protesters’ “immature” and “arrogant” tactics and called Birgeneau’s withdrawal “sad” and “troubling.”  From today’s Inquirer report:

Bowen – who made clear he took no position on Birgeneau’s handling of the Berkeley student demonstration – blasted the Haverford protestors’ approach.

“I am disappointed that those who wanted to criticize Birgeneau’s handling of events at Berkeley chose to send him such an intemperate list of “demands,” said Bowen, who led Princeton from 1972 to 1988 and last year received the National Humanities Medal from President Obama. “In my view, they should have encouraged him to come and engage in a genuine discussion, not to come, tail between his legs, to respond to an indictment that a self-chosen jury had reached without hearing counter-arguments.” . . .

Bowen also took aim at one of the student leaders of the protests, graduating senior Michael Rushmore, who called Birgeneau’s withdrawal from commencement “a minor victory.”

“It represents nothing of the kind,” Bowen asserted. “In keeping with the views of many others in higher education, I regard this outcome as a defeat, pure and simple, for Haverford – no victory for anyone who believes, as I think most of us do, in both openness to many points of view and mutual respect.”

As the Inquirer reports, Bowen noted there are many more productive ways to protest a controversial speaker or challenge distasteful views.  President Bush spoke at Yale University the year I graduated, and it was clear many students objected to his administration’s policies.  Some carried signs or protested outside.  Others refused to stand, or turned their backs –but they didn’t seek to discourage Bush from speaking or prevent others from hearing his remarks.

Similarly, when Bowen was President of Princeton, many students objected to a commencement address by George Shultz, who had been a member of President Nixon’s cabinet during Vietnam. So they stood and turned their backs while he spoke. , but did nothing to disrupt the speech.  It’s an example today’s student protesters should learn to follow.

UPDATE: Former Smith College President Ruth Simmons, subbing at Smith’s commencement for Christine Lagarde, likewise chastised the protesters for trying to suppress — rather than confront — the views they oppose.

Jonathan H. Adler teaches courses in constitutional, administrative, and environmental law at the Case Western University School of Law, where he is the inaugural Johan Verheij Memorial Professor of Law and Director of the Center for Business Law and Regulation.

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Will Baude · May 18, 2014