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Why are students forcing out commencement speakers?

Christine Lagarde, director of the International Monetary Fund, declined an invitation to speak at Smith College after student protests.
Christine Lagarde, director of the International Monetary Fund, declined an invitation to speak at Smith College after student protests.
Adam Berry/Getty Images
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Three colleges so far have made last-minute changes to graduation plans after students protested their choice of graduation speaker. The speakers all withdrew, saying they didn't want to distract from the solemn and celebratory occasion:

  • Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice turned down an invitation to speak at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, after the university's faculty council and a small group of students opposed her selection due to her role in the Bush administration. Rice, a former provost of Stanford University, wrote that the issue had become a "distraction" for Rutgers.
  • Christine Lagarde, the head of the International Monetary Fund, canceled her appearance at Smith College after students signed a petition protesting her selection. "We… do not want to be represented by someone whose work directly contributes to many of the systems that we are taught to fight against," the petition, which has 483 signatures, reads.
  • Robert Birgeneau, the former chancellor of the University of California-Berkeley, backed out of Haverford College's commencement after students objected to Birgeneau's handling of student protests during the Occupy movement, when protestors were pepper sprayed by campus police.

Objections to commencement speakers aren't uncommon, but in recent years, the protestors seem to be gaining more influence. Last year, two speakers withdrew: Robert Zoellick, a former World Bank president and George W. Bush administration official, who had been supposed to speak at Swarthmore College; and Ben Carson, the neurosurgeon and conservative commentator, slated to speak at Johns Hopkins University.

Michelle Goldberg, a journalist with The Nation, wrote about campus conflicts earlier this year. She argues that the US is seeing the reemergence of an "anti-liberal left" that values social justice more than free speech and inquiry, a point of view encapsulated in a student op-ed in the Harvard Crimson subtitled "Let's give up on academic freedom in favor of justice."

Goldberg spoke to Vox about the swinging pendulum of anti-liberal leftism and why it's most evident on college campuses — as well as about whether the uproar over commencement speakers really fits the trend. The conversation has been condensed and lightly edited and rearranged.

Vox: To be basic: What do you mean by anti-liberalism on the left?

Goldberg: A belief on certain parts of the left that liberal values like free speech and tolerance for differing opinions should be jettisoned when they get in the way of social justice… I think you can see echoes of that in that famous Harvard op-ed from earlier this year, which basically says that research should be jettisoned if it's not going to promote social justice.

This is an old idea. In American politics, leftism and liberalism are often taken as synonymous, but they're really not. There is a long, long tradition of "liberal" being used as an epithet by people on the left to mean a sellout, a person who's more concerned with the ideas of abstract justice and rights that work to ensure the continuation of the existing order. So this is an old, old division…

You often see this phenomenon when Democrats or liberals are in power. That allows people on the left to direct their ire about continuing injustice onto the failures of liberalism as opposed to the successes of conservatism.

And so obviously you saw it with [Lyndon B. Johnson], and the rise of the Weathermen and other groups that came out of the fracturing of Students for a Democratic Society. You saw it — to a much lesser extent, and to a much less serious extent — under Bill Clinton, which was the heyday of political correctness and Naderism. And I think you're seeing it again now.

Is this just on college campuses, or is this something you see within the left as a whole?

There is not that much of a left in America. Whenever you talk about the American left, a big part of their base is going to be on college campuses. … There's a specific part of the anti-liberal left that sees civil liberties and free speech ideas as secondary to social justice. You see expressions of it on Twitter, but it's mostly on college campuses.

Partly that's just because college campuses are really the only place where the left has any power to enforce its own agenda. In the broader world, there are probably leftists who want to shut up all kinds of people, but they have no ability do so. They have no power in American life. But they have power on college campuses.

It seems like this is a trend that troubles you — that's the impression I have from your writing. What do you find concerning about it?

I'm a liberal. And so I think that free speech and the free exchange of ideas and kind of open-ended intellectual inquiry — they're values that are worth defending in and of themselves, full stop.

These are also values that are extremely likely to come under attack in the event that Republicans ever get back in the White House. Take, for example, that Harvard op-ed, basically saying that research that doesn't further the writer's own agenda should be thwarted.

[Goldberg drew a comparison with the early 2000s, when Republicans in Congress proposed defunding National Institutes of Health research pertaining to drug use and human sexuality.] When you are dealing with that kind of an atmosphere, the necessity of maintaining research and intellectual inquiry as untainted by politics and ideology become really, really obvious to you.

Practically and realistically, if you go down this road, it's going to end up working against progressive values. It always does. [The students at Wellesley who objected to the statue of a sleepwalking man in his underwear] are young, they don't remember the war over the National Endowment for the Arts during Reagan and Bush. Or the time that Giuliani tried to censor an exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum. Defending unfettered artistic expression, even when it makes people uncomfortable — that has traditionally been a progressive value.

Once you decide that's a value that's only situational or contingent, it's going to make it a lot harder the next time there's another kind of wave of conservative repression.

Why is this happening right now? So many of the examples you wrote about were within the past six months.

I think it's about frustration — you have liberals in power, and they've been in power for awhile… Things are still economically terrible for a lot of people. We have all of these problems that seem to be getting worse…

I think there's a sense of frustration and futility. People despair of changing things at the national level or the state level. But you can change things in the little self-contained world of your college campus. That is a place where the left can exercise power. In a way, these kinds of culture war tempests become an outlet for otherwise frustrated political energies.

Are the protests against commencement speakers and honorary degree recipients an example of the anti-liberal left?

I think there's a difference between stopping someone from speaking and stopping a college from honoring them. Everybody gets to speak, but not everybody gets to be honored.

Not everyone deserves a $35,000 speaking gig. I think that Brandeis was right to revoke Ayaan Hirsi Ali's honorary degree. It was madness to have a Jewish institution putting its imprimatur on someone who has called for the massive repression and conversion of Muslims. It was their fault for not doing their due diligence and not realizing what she said.

What about commencement speeches? Are they invitations to speak, or are they honors that colleges are conferring?

These people aren't being invited to share their ideas or argue their ideas. They're being invited to solemnize an important occasion for these students. I don't know how meaningful of a distinction that is, but it's a difference.

You invite someone to be a commencement speaker presumably because you see them as a model and a potential inspiration for your students, whereas you invite someone to speak because they have something interesting and potentially provocative to say.

While I'm kind of uncomfortable with this trend, and I think that these protests should be maybe used sparingly, I think that being a commencement speaker has a certain honor attached to it that's different from just being involved in the regular exchange of ideas on college campuses.

I was furious when [evangelical pastor] Rick Warren was invited to give the invocation at Obama's first inauguration, even though I feel very strongly that Rick Warren has the right to say whatever he wants to say. I believe very strongly in Rick Warren's freedom of speech. I also feel his presence at that event was an insult to a lot of Obama's supporters.

You don't want to have very strict ideological litmus tests. On the other hand, I can understand not wanting someone at your commencement whose career and ideas are deeply at odds with those that you feel like you've been instilled with in the academic community.

As you said, this comes in waves. Do you see an endpoint to this return to leftist political correctness, or does it continue until conservatives are back in power?

That's the endpoint. That's a terrible endpoint. But I think, basically, when conservatives are back in power, I think that people on the left will rediscover the importance of protecting unpopular opinions.

Will they have damaged their own credibility on this issue?

We're still talking about something that's mostly confined to college campuses. If you look at all the hype over political correctness [in the 1990s], that eventually damaged liberalism and the left.  It took a long time for liberals to kind of shed their reputations for doctrinaire humorlessness.

But I don't think that we are near that point yet. In the '90s, there was a kind of very widespread idea of political correctness run amok. The country now is so polarized and our media outlets are so polarized. Fox News viewers think that [political correctness is still running amok], but they're going to think that no matter what. I'm not sure if there's a more cultural sense of people feeling under siege, or shamed, or whatever, from left-wing repression.

I think maybe it's going to get to that point, but I think it's still pretty contained to certain enclaves.