Thursday, May 29, 2014


It's that time of year again, when the academic year wraps up, and that means it's graduation time.

Graduation ceremonies are full of things that I don't like:  Repetitive, trite music; ridiculous outfits loosely connected to academic and clerical dress from six centuries ago; lots of standing in line; sweating in sweltering heat; and boring speeches, to name a few.

I've been a part of three graduation ceremonies (as a graduate) in my lifetime.  I can't say that I enjoyed more than thirty seconds of any of them.  I did enjoy my brother's high school graduation, mostly because as valedictorian he gave a cleverly incomplete speech that maddened the whole town.  Michelle's college graduation was sheer torture; it was held in the University of Maryland's then-basketball arena, which had no air conditioning, which meant that it smelled like a French subway.  I was, however, proud of her accomplishment, so it was worth it.

My graduation from law school took place during record heat.  We were required to wear dress clothes, which meant a suit and tie; layered over that was a heavy velvet gown--and don't forget the tam o' shanter.*  If forced to choose between going through that again and taking the Bar again, I'll take the Bar.

* - It was also the third time in my lifetime I had been to the main campus of Georgetown University.  The law school--excuse me, the Law Center--is downtown, near the Capitol.  The first time was to borrow a book from the main library.  The second time was to return the book.

College graduations in particular often feature speakers who are awarded honorary degrees and suitcases full of case to offer platitudes and inspiration to the new graduates. Sometimes these speeches are memorable and genuinely worth what the speakers are paid for them.  David Foster Wallace gave one of the best ever at Kenyon College in 2005--it was so good that he turned it into a book titled This is Water.

This year, a couple of incidences of speakers being pressured by the graduates to withdraw made the news.  Condoleezza Rice, erstwhile Secretary of State and George W. Bush "work wife," was offered cash and a door prize to speak at Rutgers this spring.  Many students thought that Dr. Rice's record in supporting and defending the war in Iraq disqualified her to receive a high honor in their name, and after promised protests, she withdrew.

Probably the bigger headline came out of a proposed speech and honorary doctorate offered to Robert Birgeneau, formerly the chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, by Haverford College, a Quaker-founded liberal arts college outside Philadelphia that few people have ever heard of.  Dr. Birgeneau was a controversial pick because of his role several years ago in suppressing protests by Occupy Berkeley, a group of students who were protesting rising college costs.  Campus police used force to disband the rally, apparently with Dr. Birgeneau's endorsement if not instruction.  It was an ugly, unjustified incident for which Dr. Birgeneau has refused to apologize.

A group of about 40 Haverford seniors and several professors who had been students at Berkeley, wrote a letter to Dr. Birgeneau, indicating that they would protest Haverford's decision to honor him unless he undertook nine steps of contrition, including a formal apology, support for reparations to the students who were injured, and a letter to Haverford students explaining his position, among others.  Dr. Birgeneau also withdrew rather than face protests.

His replacement, however, was not so reticent.  William G. Bowen, who was the president of Princeton University for a long time, and who was largely responsible for the development of JSTOR, the electronic access system for academic journals, used the opportunity afforded him by Haverford to lay into to those who were opposed to honoring Dr. Birgeneau.  Dr. Bowen called the students' letter "an intemperate list of demands," adding that in his view, the students "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."

Dr. Bowen also referred to the protestors' letter as "immature" and "arrogant."

The thing about Dr. Bowen's remarks I find curious is in his fundamental misunderstanding both of the long history of protest as an essentially American activity and of how commencement exercises work.  These students, many of whom paid more than $200,000 for the privilege of earning their degrees, believed, legitimately, that they ought to have some say in who speaks to them at their graduation ceremony and who receives an honorary degree from the institution from which they are graduating.  It is never inappropriate for those affected by an action most directly to speak out about what they see as an injustice.

As I have said many times, the remedy for speech you don't like is speech you do like, and these protestors were right to do as they did.  They handled this matter in a manner that was neither intemperate, nor immature, nor arrogant--which is more than can be said for Dr. Bowen, who was in the space of his remarks all three.

Moreover, commencement exercises are not a forum for debate.  They are a ceremony with a prescribed format and agenda.  Activities--such as a response to the speaker's remarks--that are not on the agenda are not a part of the ceremony.  Even silent protest, which is the only form Dr. Bowen could bring himself to endorse, is not a dialogue.  I find it hard to believe that a man who presided over more than a dozen commencements at Princeton would fail to grasp that concept.

* * * * *

As for Dr. Birgeneau...I am reminded of part of the profile of Sen. Daniel Webster in John F. Kennedy's Profiles in Courage.  Kennedy, who held Webster's Senate seat more than 100 years later, praised Webster for his role in the Compromise of 1850, calling Webster's defense of the compromise "one of the greatest acts of courageous principle" in the Senate's history.  Students of history know that the Compromise of 1850, which led to passage of a Fugitive Slave Act, held the Union together for about 10 more years, but ultimately became a significant part of the abolitionists' motivation in ending slavery.  Webster's role in the compromise is something I would consider a dubious distinction, although I understand and appreciate the motivation to keep the Union together even at great cost.

But what reminds me of the profile of Webster is how delicately Kennedy tiptoed around Webster's vices.  Webster, as great a statesman and orator as he was, made it known that his vote was easy bought; his constituents routinely paid him outright bribes for favorable treatment.  It was something that Henry Cabot Lodge called "utterly wrong and demoralizing," but that Webster regarded as the natural order of things.

The link to Dr. Birgeneau is in his blindness to his professional failing.  Dr. Birgeneau was, during his time at Berkeley, one of the staunchest advocates for the rights of minority students as well as for undocumented aliens who had lived most of their lives in the United States.  He is rightly regarded as a civil rights leader for those activities.  It is unfortunate that he cannot see that the violent suppression of peaceful protest on the grounds of a public university is a deeply shameful, even criminal, and most definitely un-American act.

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