In all of the commentary regarding the withdrawal of commencement speakers this season, perhaps not enough people made the point that William Bowen did over the weekend in his speech at Haverford College. That school had invited former Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau to speak. When Haverford students objected because they didn’t approve of the way he handled an incident at Berkeley (in which the police used force against an Occupy Movement student), Birgeneau decided to pull out.
Bowen castigated Haverford students for their immature behavior, calling them “arrogant” and the whole situation “sad” and “troubling.” But, according to the AP, he also said Birgeneau had “responded intemperately, failing to make proper allowance for the immature, and, yes, arrogant inclinations of some protesters. Aggravated as he had every right to be, I think he should be with us today.” This seems about right. No doubt many of the students at Haverford and Smith (where Christine Lagarde of the IMF decided to back out of speaking recently) would have held up signs or tried to otherwise create difficulties at commencement. But it would have been the responsibility of the university to ensure that the speeches went off without a hitch. Lagarde and Birgeneau needn’t have been so sensitive to stupidity of a few undergraduates.
Condi Rice and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, however, were in a different situation. In those cases, it was the grownups on campus (Rutgers and Brandeis respectively) who objected to their presence. It was the faculty and administration that could not seem to abide any kind of differing viewpoint and so there would be no reason for these women to assume that they would be treated respectfully by their audiences.
Of course, it is not as if there is no connection between these commencement incidents—between faculty objecting and students objecting. American college students assume that when they protest their demands will be met because that’s what happens when the adults around them protest. Since the takeovers of administration buildings on campuses like Cornell and Columbia in the late 1960s, the inmates have been running the asylum.
College administrations and faculty have not only convinced students that they don’t ever need to hear anything they find slightly disturbing. They have also told students that one of the signature experiences of college is protesting. You are supposed to shed all of the silly ideas you were brought up with, and any new ones that the wrong adults try to foist on you. The chickens have come home to roost.