Who should be allowed to speak on a university campus? This question has been the subject of debate during the last few years, especially as a growing sector of college students, faculty, alumni and other stakeholders have begun objecting to commencement speakers they say they find offensive. As that trend continued to rise, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has renamed the commencement period "Disinvitation Season."
In 2014, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice withdrew her acceptance of an honorary degree from Rutgers University in the face of protests from both students and faculty, while Brandeis University rescinded the offer of an honorary degree to women's rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Last fall, students at the University of California at Berkeley objected to the comedian Bill Maher receiving an honorary degree after hearing his reservations about extremist Islam.
An honorary degree is no small acknowledgment of achievement, and every award should be rigorously thought through. But should bestowing an honorary degree necessitate that the recipient fully align with the ideas of every faculty member or student? The offer of an honorary degree is an embrace of an element of someone's body of work. The revocation of an honorary degree is the rejection of a speaker as unfitting within the institution's moral teachings or mission statement.
Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, hardly a man of the right, devoted a portion of his commencement address at Harvard University to talking about the problem of liberal intolerance on the modern day college campus. "[I]t has been disturbing to see a number of college commencement speakers withdraw, or have their invitations rescinded, after protests from students and -- to me, shockingly -- from senior faculty and administrators who should know better," Bloomberg said. "In each case, liberals silenced a voice and denied an honorary degree to individuals they deemed politically objectionable."
Former NY Mayor Michael Bloomberg, in his 2014 commencement speech at Harvard University, criticized the trend of disinvitations, saying, "it has been disturbing to see a number of college commencement speakers withdraw, or have their invitations rescinded, after protests from students and -- to me, shockingly -- from senior faculty and administrators who should know better." (Image source: Harvard video screenshot)
The consequence, unfortunately, is an increasingly microscopic scrutiny to which commencement speakers are subjected for any and all potentially offensive remarks they may ever have uttered at any point in their lives.
The pattern of opposing "offensive" speakers has also extended to campuses more broadly. Libertarian scholar Charles Murray was disinvited from Azusa Pacific University after students complained that his appearance risked "hurting" faculty and students of color.
This week, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, George Will, was the keynote speaker at the "Disinvitation Dinner," hosted by the William F. Buckley program at Yale.
In October, Will was disinvited from Scripps, a women's college, for challenging the way in which campuses were dealing with cases of alleged sexual assault. Colleges and universities "are learning that when they say campus victimizations are ubiquitous ("micro-aggressions," often not discernible to the untutored eye, are everywhere), and that when they make victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges, victims proliferate," Will wrote.
Will traced the concept of restricting other people's speech to Germany in the 19th century, and then addressed the current trend on campus of threats to free speech and the open exchange of ideas. He also commented on, more broadly, the appetite off-campus as well, especially in the political landscape.
He noted that the college campuses of today reveal who has "spine," the moral courage to stand up against mob-think to demand a strong, open, free exchange of ideas. Sadly, these individuals have become an increasingly smaller minority.
The idea that upholding free speech on campus requires "spine" is a scary indication of the world that academia is nurturing.
Encouragingly, there have been no disinvitees from the spring 2015 commencement season -- yet. What is not clear, however, is if everyone agrees with the chosen speakers, or if protestors have just given up. The unanimity comes as bit of a pleasant shock, given that universities nationwide, at considerable risk, have chosen to honor figures who have taken controversial stands or positions in the past.
Scheduled honorary degree recipients include former President George W. Bush (Southern Methodist University), Secretary of State Colin Powell (Rice University), and Ambassador Samantha Power (University of Pennsylvania). Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will receive an honorary degree from the College of William and Mary on the heels of last year's debacle at Rutgers University.
Perhaps the lack of uproar, thus far, is the start of a new trend, and "Disinvitation Season" will become a movement of the past.
Censorship, for some, might prevent intellectual or emotional discomfort -- but sometimes these are as essential to a real education as professors.
The thought of blocking a speaker on campus -- let alone revoking the offer of an honorary degree -- should be abhorrent to anyone who values academic freedom, free speech and the courtesy of at least listening to statements with which one might -- or might not -- agree.
Daniel Mael, a senior at Brandeis University, is a fellow at the Salomon Center.