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Commencement is a delicate balance

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Scott Miller Scott Miller
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Scott D. Miller is President and M.M. Cochran Professor of Leadership Studies at Bethany College. A graduate of West Virginia Wesleyan College, he has served as president of three private liberal arts colleges during the past 23 years. A consultant to college presidents and boards, he edits “Presidential Perspectives” (presidentialperspectives.org), a higher education leadership series written by college presidents for college presidents.

For a time this spring, you could almost imagine being back in the 1960s.

Almost.

College commencement season 2014 may well go down as the most memorable in recent history. At campuses large and small, public and private, various scheduled speakers never made it to the podium —their addresses preempted by concerns about controversial political or business practices. Some of the high-profile non-speakers this year included former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde and former University of California, Berkeley, Chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau, who refused to meet demands from some students and faculty at Haverford College that he comply with nine “conditions” related to UC’s response to Occupy Wall Street protests three years ago (The Christian Science Monitor, May 13, 2014).

Instead of students wielding bullhorns to vent their disagreement — a familiar memory of 1960s Vietnam-War protests — today’s arbiters of acceptability use petitions and social media for their surgical preemptive strikes on speakers deemed inappropriate. It’s frequently a highly effective form of preventive action that can result in “disinviting” speakers and sparing graduates and parents — and the speakers themselves — from embarrassing disruption on commencement morning. Although most faculty, administrators, students and parents would be grateful for that, the image and reputation of the institution can still be harmed.

This is not the 1960s when bitter and divisive events engulfed not just campuses but much of the nation in social upheaval. And, yes, public campus events prompt security precautions; understandable concerns about campus safety have become part of the new norm in higher education as elsewhere in our society.

Still, this spring’s commencement headlines suggest more far-reaching concerns that are fundamental to what we expect our institutions to be. As a college president, whose job often means looking at all sides of an issue, I observe some warning signs.

Disagreement on campuses is nothing new. Ingrained in the character of colleges and universities is the notion of challenging conventional thinking and distasteful behavior, of exercising social and political leadership and fighting for just causes. The founder of Bethany College in West Virginia, Alexander Campbell, insisted on giving students freedom from what he called “vulgar prejudices.” He envisioned an institution where “unfettered thinking” would always prevail. He was an early advocate of education for women, and the current president’s residence, Christman Manor at Pendleton Heights, was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Hallmarks of American campuses throughout our history, vigorous debate and dissent should be respected as part of the broad imperative of academic freedom and intellectual integrity. It can also be very instructive to be a protester, high-principled or not.

Increasingly, however, choosing a commencement speaker, or any other participant in campus discourse, has less to do with freedom of speech and more to do with freedom from unpalatable speech — or more typically, what is perceived to be distasteful by a few. Quoted in The Washington Post (May 14, 2014), American Council of Trustees and Alumni President Anne Neal says that campuses “have become islands of intolerance where a small group of close-minded students and faculty can cut off discussion … The academy, in too many places, has become one-sided, coercive and hostile to a multiplicity of perspectives.”

I can think of nothing more hostile to intellectual freedom than stifling the views of an invited speaker with something of significance to say, regardless of his or her politics. Some in the audience will be offended by granting an honorary degree to a controversial guest. But such decisions are determined not by the minority but by trustees and administrators acting on behalf of the majority. In any case, not every commencement speaker will or should receive an honorary doctorate; institutions should reserve this special honor for those whose overall life achievements and service warrant it.

At the same time, colleges and universities should safeguard the role of dissent as an expected extension of the learning experience. Well-informed and defended arguments are the cornerstone of scholarship, and necessary to the intellectual dialogue that institutions stand for.

In any event, on commencement morning we should focus not on the speakers but on the graduates. It’s their day, their moment to celebrate, as any speaker worth his or her bottled water will point out in the course of remarking on the occasion. My experience has been that most commencement speakers avoid saying anything that would detract from the positive experience of students and their families or the dignity of the event. I think we owe even the most controversial speakers the courtesy of allowing them to make that choice, instead of encouraging a few dissenters to decide in advance what’s politically acceptable, as if they speak for the majority when often they do not.

Every time a commencement speaker is “disinvited,” that is exactly, disturbingly what we accomplish.