Zev Karlin-Neumann is a senior writer with West Wing Writers, a speechwriting and strategy firm.
College commencements, we are so often reminded, mark a beginning as well as an end. And recently, they’ve marked the beginning of something else: campus protests that have caused controversial commencement speakers to cancel their speeches faster than you can say “honoris causa.”
Ostensibly, the issue is the speakers. But the real problem is the format.
A commencement address is just that — an address. It travels in a single line, from the person on the podium to the masses baking in the sun. That may be fine for your typical speaker, an alumna who has become a senior vice president or mid-level public official. But when it comes to lightning-rod speakers such as former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice or the anti-Islam women’s rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali — figures who inspire passionate disagreement — a speech from on high leaves students feeling slighted and voiceless. Short of heckling or walking out, hollering until the speaker backs out is one of the only ways to express disapproval.
In a world where even airlines tweet enthusiastic apologies to disgruntled customers, why do our universities cling to a form of communication that can trace its lineage to the Sermon on the Mount?
I do not advocate that we eliminate these addresses. (Among other things, they provide speechwriters like me with a steady income.) Nor would I suggest avoiding controversial speakers and turning commencement into an event of all pomp and no substance.
Instead, imagine what might happen if universities invited controversial speakers to teach a pre-commencement seminar before their big addresses. Gather a cross section of the student body — activists, artists, football players — in an auditorium, hand out a couple of microphones, and let them have at it. After all, if a speaker is to receive an honorary degree, shouldn’t he or she at least participate in a single honorary seminar?
Rutgers University’s antiwar activists could ask Rice why she ginned up support for a preemptive war, despite precious little intelligence suggesting that the next smoking gun would be a mushroom cloud. Instead of protesting her speech, they could ask her face to face: Why do you continue to defend the George W. Bush administration’s torture of detainees?
Similarly, I think that Hirsi Ali, who has attacked Islam as “a destructive, nihilistic cult of death ,” and the Brandeis University student who called those views “pure hate speech” would benefit from hearing about each other’s divergent experiences with Islam. And I imagine Christine Lagarde, the first woman to head the International Monetary Fund, would have quite a response to the young women at Smith College protesting her for leading a historically “imperialist and patriarchal” institution. Ditto Robert Birgeneau, an outspoken liberal and former chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley, whom students at Haverford College deemed responsible for police mistreatment of Berkeley Occupy protesters.
By entering the lion’s den, the speakers would establish what speechwriters call a “handshake” — creating a connection with detractors by acknowledging their concerns. Such a move would show that the speakers respect the students and their views. It would recognize that even those in positions of authority are not above fielding questions about themselves and their actions. Most important, it would honor the purpose of a university education — to train students to listen to competing arguments, marshal their own and ultimately, perhaps, agree to disagree.
Moreover, this exchange would yield better commencement speeches. Some of the best commencements are ones whose speakers — face to face or via e-mail — solicit student input about themselves and how they view the world they’ll be entering. A pre-commencement seminar could serve as both focus group and discussion about the controversy at hand. If “The Matrix” is right that “you do not truly know someone until you fight them,” by the same token, speakers should get to know students before pronouncing them incredible, good-looking and the future of the human race. After debating them, such praise might feel more sincere.
A brief dialogue wouldn’t solve everything. But at a minimum, it would offer a practical outlet for student criticism and reaffirm the value of the degrees they’ll soon receive. It says to the students: “Like it or not, you still have something to learn — and to teach.”
At my own college commencement three years ago, as I and my 5,000 fellow almost-graduates listlessly listened to then-Mexican President Felipe Calderón, all I could focus on was the small plane circling counterclockwise above the stadium. The bright yellow banner streaming behind it read: “40,000 DEAD! HOW MANY MORE?”
It was a protest of Calderón’s drug-war policies, though that wasn’t clear at the time. I didn’t know who was upset or why, and I didn’t know what Calderón thought about their arguments. All I saw was a world leader — gamely but vainly trying to reach a few thousand students — and the block capitals billowing above him.