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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Commencement Speaker Controversy

Commencement Speaker Controversy

Commencement Speaker Controversy

Reexamining the purpose of the speech

Miriam Schulman

This article was originally published in USA Today College on May 12, 2016.

It’s that time of year again: spring has sprung, a young man’s fancy is turning to thoughts of love, and protests are breaking out over commencement speakers. As a product of the 1960s, I’m often sympathetic to student activists, but when I read that Scripps College students and faculty were protesting an invitation extended to former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, I had to draw the line.

Not that I agree with Albright on every issue. Like the Scripps protesters, I’m not impressed with her leadership on Rwanda, nor did I like her comment that there was a special place in hell for women who did not support Hillary Clinton’s bid for the presidency.

But people, a commencement speaker is not supposed to confirm your pre-existing ideas. A graduation speech—if you’re lucky—will give you something new to think about.

Now, it’s true that too many of these orations can be summarized in a few sentences: The youth of today will be the leaders of tomorrow. Go forth and follow your passion. In fact, when I was discussing this issue with my colleagues at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, someone suggested we could simply create a commencement-bot. It could utter the expected platitudes without generating any controversy.

Except that’s not what college is about. A college education is supposed to foster curiosity about people who think differently than you do. That goal cannot be suspended in a graduation ceremony; it’s supposed to be a lifelong habit of mind.

Also, I would argue against having a litmus test for a graduation speaker. Someone I disagree with on one issue may have a lot to tell me about another. This has been a particular issue on Catholic campuses, like ours. At some Catholic institutions, deviation from Church teaching on any point (particularly on the issue of abortion) has been grounds for excluding a potential speaker.

But as Steve Privett, SJ, former president of the Catholic school University of San Francisco, put it in an interview with America Magazine, “We are not single-issue persons. Human beings are much more rich and complex than that. So when we’re picking a speaker we’re looking at the totality of a person’s life, not zeroing in on a particular issue.”

Even when we think someone went horribly wrong on a particular issue, that person may make an inspiring commencement speaker. Ironically, graduation may be the exact right moment to say something to students about moral finitude. Yes, we want our graduates to reach for the stars or whatever cliché you prefer about big, hairy, audacious goals. But shouldn’t we also suggest to them that humans are fallible, that none of us fulfills all of his or her promise or promises?

In that light, Albright might be the perfect commencement speaker. First, she has apologized for her intemperate comment on Clinton. But more significantly, she had this to say when aFrontline reporter asked her about Rwanda:

It sits as the greatest regret that I have from the time I was U.N. ambassador and maybe even as secretary of state, because it is a huge tragedy, and something that sits very heavy on all our souls.

Of course, we all can think of commencement speakers who are so wrong that we would decline to hear them: Bill Cosby probably isn’t getting as many invitations as he used to. I cannot see myself sitting through a David Duke speech.

But focusing too much on what is disqualifying in a speaker may distract us from an equally important question: What is our responsibility as an audience? How much should we push ourselves to hear other views? If we can’t manage that broad mindedness in a place that is supposed to be devoted to the open discussion of important issues, what does this bode for our already fractious public square?

Miriam Schulman is the associate director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.
(AP Photo/Joerg Sarbach)
May 19, 2016

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