Dan Thomasson - Civility and commencement speeches

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A year ago attending my oldest granddaughter's graduation from a major Virginia university, I was somewhat curious about the lack of a commencement speaker. There was instead a short, perhaps six or seven minute statement by the dean of her particular college, the largest in the school, praising the newly minted graduates and wishing them luck.

I was told that because of the size of the class and ancillary requirements like the awarding of faculty and student academic honors, it was decided to forgo the usual celebrity pep talk. I accepted this as sensible and plausible but suspected that another reason was the difficulty these days of enlisting men and women of stature to make the traditional speech and receive an honorary -- both designed to increase the prestige of the school as well as to honor the person chosen.

The furor now swirling around campuses this year is ample proof that tradition may be coming to an end with more and more colleges and universities deciding it may not be worth the potential embarrassment to the institution to engage a speaker who some view as too controversial.

According to The Washington Post and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, since 1987 there have been at least 145 instances in which speakers have withdrawn their names, had their invitations rescinded or been the subject of protests. The list seems to have grown exponentially in the last five years with 100 such examples. In 2010 for instance Butler University found John G. Roberts Jr., the chief justice of the United Sates and an Indiana native, too controversial to address its graduates. Earlier in 2008, former everything including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had the same honor heaped on her by the College of St. Catherine.

This year former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice canceled her Rutgers University graduation appearance because of student and faculty protests and other major figures like former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie as well prominent academics from places like the University of California Berkley and Harvard have faced the same situation for past decisions or current policies.

I tried to recall my own college commencement speaker and wasn't able to do so and I was too lazy to try to find out. Besides, I remember nothing of the speech as I daresay neither do 99.9 percent of graduates 10 minutes after they shift their tassels. Their only thoughts naturally center on what comes next.

But that seems beside the point. There are larger issues here not the least of which is the belief that college is a place for the exchange of all ideas, no matter how outlandish, to be accepted or rejected as one sees fit. That isn't, at least I was taught, limited to the classroom where the audience is captive but extends also to those outside the academic circle who have a record of achievement.

In other words, the fact that a handful of student protesters or timid administrators or activist faculty members can deny access to the likes of the chief justice of the United States or the nation's chief foreign policy experts, no matter whose presidential administration they served, is an assault on academic freedom second to none. Is there any greater hypocrisy? Furthermore it is an insult to the students who are deprived of making their own judgment. Whatever happened to the mantra "I disagree with what you say but I will defend ..."?

We're not talking about peddlers of hate here or those who would advocated the return of slavery or preach sedition. It goes without saying that to give them a platform would be wrong. But these are people of solid prominence and expertise in their fields, who just might have a suggestion that would benefit a student audience.

My mother and father taught me that open mindedness was crucial to success in any endeavor. "Listen and sort," my mother used to say. "If you don't like what you hear, reject it. If it makes sense, accept it as long as it isn't a threat to civil order or the rights of others." I always found that good advice.

I didn't miss having to sit through a long address at my granddaughter's commencement, but I would have done so politely.

(Dan Thomasson is an op-ed columnist for McClatchy-Tribune and a former vice president of Scripps Howard Newspapers.)

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