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GUEST COMMENTARY: As with much in America, commencement becomes a political issue

Friday, May 16, 2014 | 4:41 p.m. CDT

I teach at Georgetown University. Every May, Georgetown, like other colleges and universities across the country, has a commencement ceremony full of pomp and diplomas.

At the commencement, there's a speaker who has been invited to bring gravitas to the event, offer insight, perhaps inspire and — if the graduates and their families are very lucky — give them a laugh or two.

Some commencement speeches have become legend — those of Steve Jobs, Stephen Colbert and Russell Baker, for instance. Most probably get at least a passing grade, and some, well, let's just say it's a good thing the speaker wasn't on the podium for a diploma.

Until recently, commencement speeches were just part of the routine. Now, they're part of the partisan divide. Speakers across the spectrum are getting "uninvited." (It reminds me, in a "Through the Looking-Glass" sort of way, of the Mad Hatter's un-birthdays.)

The un-invitation

Speakers have been uninvited for a variety of reasons. For example, Dustin Lance Black, an Academy Award-winning producer and writer, was invited to speak at Pasadena City College, his alma mater, in April. Officials became aware of a private bedroom tape that had been stolen from Black.

Although he'd won a $100,000 court settlement for the theft from an ex-boyfriend's computer, the school uninvited him, not because of same-gender intimacy, but because Black had had unprotected sex. The university encourages protected sex.

The college then invited a speaker who, unfortunately for its poor vetting, had made homophobic statements. Black then had his legal team talk to the Pasadena City College's legal team, and Black was "re-invited."

Montana Tech, located in Butte, invited Greg and Susan Gianforte, a husband and wife engineering team that has formed several successful tech companies. They've given generously to Montana Tech.

However, the Gianfortes also back a creationism museum that disputes the theory of evolution. Tech professors presented a petition asking for the uninvite, arguing that it was inappropriate to feature "anti-science" speakers at a university devoted to science.

The chancellor retorted that the Gianfortes made their money applying science, and noted that the university's science is partially fueled by their monies.

The withdrawals

Next, the Oklahoma City Police Academy invited Attorney General Eric Holder, and he accepted. How appropriate to have the nation's top law enforcement official swear in those about to start their police careers.

But outside forces politicized the event, promising to greet Holder with hundreds of partisan protesters outside the graduation ceremonies. Holder canceled because of a national security meeting.

Rutgers University had invited former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. But a faction of students and faculty demanded she be uninvited because of her role in the Iraq War. A TV syndicated news show quoted one protester as saying, "War criminals shouldn't be honored."

Rice withdrew, saying her speaking had become "a distraction" to the celebratory nature of graduating.

In late April, Michelle Obama moved her speech for the graduation ceremonies of Topeka, Kansas, high school seniors to a Senior Recognition Day. Some 1,750 students and relatives had signed a petition protesting her appearance. Objections given were that she would distract from the students, and that tickets per family were limited because of the demand to see the First Lady.

Forty students and professors at Haverford College in Pennsylvania blocked Robert Birgeneau, the former chancellor of UC Berkeley, from speaking this May. They presented a list of nine conditions that included a public apology for his decisions during Occupy Wall Street protests, and an essay from him detailing "what you learned" from the experience. Birgeneau withdrew his acceptance.

Finally, Smith College in Massachusetts, one of the largest women's colleges in the U.S., had invited Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, as commencement speaker.

Lagarde initially accepted, but 477 students (Smith has 2,500 undergraduates) later signed an online petition protesting her appearance because they feel IMF projects and policies have exacerbated the plight of the world's poor.

Lagarde did not want controversy over her speaking to spoil the gaiety of graduation, and she, like Rice, withdrew.

Commencement speakers have gone from bland and boring to controversial. The rash of "uninvites" raises questions of academic freedom, and appropriate forums. (Smith's economic professors, who wanted to hear Christine Lagarde, could invite her as a guest lecturer.)

And who decides who the commencement speaker should be? Administration? Alumni? Faculty? Students? There's a legal principle, audi alteram partem — "hear the other side, too." If students haven't heard it after four years, is the commencement speech the place to start?

Donna Brazile is a senior Democratic strategist, a political commentator and contributor to CNN and ABC News, and a contributing columnist to Ms. Magazine and O, the Oprah Magazine. Distributed by the United Feature Syndicate.


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