Commencement speakers should embody university’s ideals
Vice President Mike Pence’s commencement speech at University of Notre Dame on May 21 was met with dozens of graduating students walking out of the ceremony as he spoke. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos spoke at the historically black college Bethune-Cookman’s graduation to jeers and turned backs, as neither DeVos’ misinformation about the creation of such colleges nor her inexperience in the field were forgotten by the audience. To this, the university president Edison O. Jackson said to the crowd, “If this behavior continues, your degrees will be mailed to you. Choose which way you want to go.”
Universities do not look for a reason to stimulate debate, but instead choose their commencement speakers and inspire critical thinking among the departing students, according to Inside Higher Ed writer Scott Jaschik. However, oftentimes an image incites debate as an “increased emphasis on ideological symbolism” and can even become a method of elevating prestige. To combat this, as one columnist at University of Southern California’s Daily Trojan stated, “Graduating students should have the power to nominate and vote for commencement speakers, or at the very least, be given choices by the university’s administration.”
What is seen in these commencement speeches is not only what might be a purposeful attempt to bring in controversy for the sake of national recognition — it is also a blatant refusal to recognize what graduating students want and need on one of the most memorable days of their lives.
This is not the first year politicians and notable speakers have faced protests. At Notre Dame, anti-abortion advocates confronted President Barack Obama in 2009 and Vice President Joe Biden in 2016. In 2014, a petition was created to prevent Bill Maher from speaking at UC Berkeley’s December commencement ceremony, but it did not accumulate enough support to elicit a response from the university’s administration.
Oprah Winfrey at Smith College, Dame Helen Mirren at Tulane University and Canadian Supreme Court Justice Rosalie Abella at Brandeis University have all attributed parts of their speeches to combating injustice in this country, some of which has been implemented by speakers who have been protested. On June 17, the Dalai Lama will speak at UC San Diego and has already been met with a number of protesters against his ideals of freeing the Tibetan national identity as a Chinese territory.
The protest against DeVos is an example of a university administration that is out of touch with the prevailing student sentiment. The protest against Pence was well-deserved and did not infringe on the experience of those who wanted to remain, as those who walked out did so as to shape their own narratives of their graduations. This editorial board encourages students across the country to advocate for individuals whom they believe represent the university’s ideals as well as their own — the act of protest on a day celebrating students’ success is not so much an act of protest as much as it is a refusal to accept a form of celebration forced upon them.