Robert Birgeneau, former chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley was supposed to be the commencement speaker at Haverford College in Pennsylvania. Instead, William Bowen, former president of Princeton University did the honors. Students protested Birgeneau’s selection, so he became the latest in a string of commencement speakers who backed out of the commitment. The students were fired up over the former president’s handling of students who protested on the Berkeley campus as part of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
According to the New York Post, 40 students and three professors voiced opposition to Birgeneau’s selection. “The group wanted Birgeneau to apologize, support payments for victims and write a letter to Haverford students explaining his position on the events and ‘what you learned from them,’” the paper writes.
“I am disappointed that those who wanted to criticize Birgeneau’s handling of events at Berkeley chose to send him such an intemperate list of ‘demands,'” Bowen said. And that’s not all.
“In my view, they should have encouraged him to come and engage in a genuine discussion, not to come, tail between his legs, to respond to an indictment that a self-chosen jury had reached without hearing counterarguments,” Bowen continued.
He then turned his critique to Birgeneau and the Berkeley protesters. “I think that Birgeneau, in turn, responded intemperately, failing to make proper allowance for the immature, and, yes, arrogant inclinations of some protesters,” he added.
The road to finding a commencement speaker has been a rocky one for a number of schools. Some took issue with Diddy speaking at Howard University (and getting an honorary doctorate), a school he dropped out of. Condoleeza Rice decided to bow out of the opportunity to speak to Rutgers students after the campus erupted in protest over her past involvement with the George W. Bush administration. And Christine Lagarde, the International Monetary Fund’s managing director, decided to forego the chance to speak to Smith College grads after a petition began to have her removed. The students were against what they call a lack of accountability at the IMF.
Bowen makes a good point about confronting this sort of controversy head on when it happens. It’s going to be difficult for schools to find speakers who have a record that someone can’t find a flaw with. But rather than letting the situation get to the point where the speaker has to back out it might be best to have a program in place for students to air their critiques. Giving students and faculty a chance to address their concerns out in the open is an exercise that’s in line with the atmosphere that most schools want to create. The content of those discussions would also likely travel beyond the walls of campus, broadening the discussion of whatever topic it is to the media and society at large.
On college campuses as elsewhere, people are openly discussing what’s on their mind. Creating a way for people to present their arguments might be the way administrators want to go for future graduation programs.