Call this The Revenge of the Commencement Speakers, even though it comes from one who actually managed to make it to the dais for a college graduation. William G. Bowen lambasted the protestors at Haverford College in his speech to the class of 2014 for their “immature” and “arrogant” demands on a previously-invited speaker who withdrew rather than pick up an honorary degree. Bowen called the atmosphere on Haverford’s campus “sad” and “troubling,” two words that could also describe the intellectual environment at other universities as well:
In a surprising move, a commencement speaker at Haverford College on Sunday used the celebratory occasion to deliver a sharp rebuke to students who had mounted a campaign against another speaker who had been scheduled to appear but withdrew amid the controversy.
William G. Bowen, former president of Princeton and a nationally respected higher education leader, called the student protestors’ approach both “immature” and “arrogant” and the subsequent withdrawal of Robert J. Birgeneau, former chancellor of the University of California Berkeley, a “defeat” for the Quaker college and its ideals.
Bowen’s remarks to an audience of about 2,800 that gave him a standing ovation added a new twist to commencement speaker controversies playing out increasingly on college campuses across the nation. Bowen faced no opposition, but chose to defend a fellow speaker who was targeted, calling the situation “sad” and “troubling.”
A handful of students and faculty protested the invitation to Birgenau because of the police response to Occupy protesters in 2011. The police ended up using force, producing an iconic photograph of a woman getting a face full of pepper spray by riot police as they cracked down on the encampment. What the protesters likely omitted from their outrage this spring is that the Berkeley protest had already turned violent, with two reported sexual assaults and an attempt to attack the police station.
The protesters at Haverford finally offered a deal in which they would allow Birgenau to grovel to them:
They wrote a letter to Birgeneau, urging him to meet nine conditions, including publicly apologizing, supporting reparations for the victims, and writing a letter to Haverford students explaining his position on the events and “what you learned from them.”
Birgenau responded by telling them to pound sand, in so many words, and withdrew rather than deal with their arrogance. Bowen criticized his response, but put it on the Haverfordians:
“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.’ 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 counter-arguments.” …
“I think that Birgeneau, in turn, responded intemperately, failing to make proper allowance for the immature, and, yes, arrogant inclinations of some protestors. Aggravated as he had every right to be, I think he should be with us today.”
I don’t blame Birgenau for dumping Haverford from his schedule. Why spend your quality time talking to a bunch of self-righteous jackasses who already have demonstrated that they don’t want dialogue but surrender?
The awarding of an honorary degree is still a different issue, though. It’s one thing to defend an unpopular position in an open debate, which should be encouraged. An invitation from a college or university to someone with a heterodox view on an issue does not equate to an endorsement of that point of view. Awarding an honorary degree does carry that kind of implicit endorsement, and is a valid point of criticism when it comes to speaker invitations. Why, though, do universities insist on issuing these meaningless documents to their speakers? It’s an absurdity, especially for those who have already earned advanced degrees in their fields of expertise. Get rid of the phony degrees and maybe we can marginalize the phony elites even further.