It is commencement protest season again. Almost 3,000 people have signed on to a petition to get Chris Christie off the schedule at Rowan University. IMF Managing Director, Christine Lagarde, has cancelled her commencement speech at Smith College after student protests. Condoleezza Rice will no longer be giving the commencement speech at Rutgers after protests there. Last year it was Robert Zoellick and Ben Carson.
Everyone who talks about these controversies in terms of free speech or academic freedom – just stop.
Everyone who pretends like they can both climb the hierarchies and not be morally compromised – just stop.
A commencement speech is not a conversation. It isn’t a debate. It isn’t an open platform. There is nothing free about it. A commencement speech is where an institution selects an elite to tell the fresh crop of social climbers coming up behind them how they can be better than everyone else. Selecting a commencement speaker is about confirming the social status of the speaker. When you select someone to speak, you are saying that they are someone worth emulating. It isn’t the same as having someone speak on a panel where their views and status can be questioned.
If you are in the university system, you are there to receive the credentials to continue being one of the privileged few. If that credentialing is truly important to you, then you are completely invested in the system that creates Robert Zoellick and Condoleezza Rice. If your goal is to gain a position of power over anybody – even in a liberal social work warm fuzzy sort of way – you are not morally superior to the people you are protesting against.
Anyone who thinks they go to a university that is somehow different from all the other institutions conferring power and privilege, please feel free to make your case. But remember how many universities are doing research for the military. Rutgers, for instance, makes military armor. And remember where university funding comes from. If you go to Johns Hopkins, I really hope you like Mayor Bloomberg, cause that is who is funding your studies.
Maybe people should stop protesting commencement speeches and start protesting institutions that perpetuate privilege and power. Or at least select someone to speak who might have something important to say. I bet the people who clean up after the students on campus would have a lot of insight.