Students at one school declare, “we deserve better.”

By Katerina Pappas

Every year, colleges across the country invite commencement speakers to enlighten graduates with wisdom from their own experiences.

But due to college protests, commencement season can become something different – an advocacy group called FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) has called it “disinvitation season.” 

FIRE’s Disinvitation Report found that from 2000 to 2013, there have been 192 reports of disinvitation incidents. The numbers peaked in 2013, the last year of available data, with 29 incidents.

U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions head shot

U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., was invited to give the spring commencement speech at the University of Alabama in Huntsville on May 1. (Photo: Office of Sen. Sessions)

A current controversy has been over the invitation of U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., to give this spring’s commencement speech at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. Victoria Forrester, a student at UAH, helped create a petition to invite another speaker to the campus.

Forrester said that Sessions has a “terrible” civil rights record. A staunch conservative, Sessions voted against reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act, expanding hate crimes to include sexual orientation and legalizing gay marriage. He also recently endorsed Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.

Forrester said UAH has a diverse group of students and a history of campaigning for more money for education. This past February, students marched to the state house in Montgomery to lobby for more higher education funding.

To spend the day marching, and then to have a commencement speaker who votes to defund public education is contradictory to an embarrassing extent,” Forrester said. “Our hard work is being undone and covered up with with the false pretense that this university supports Sessions because Sessions supports us. He simply doesn’t.”

As of now, Sessions is still scheduled to give the commencement address.

Not today, Hoda Kotb

Another recent commencement controversy involves Hoda Kotb, co-host of NBC’s Today Show, who was named the speaker for Tulane University’s graduation ceremony this May.

A few days after she was invited as commencement speaker, students started a petition, stating they “deserve better than this.”  Sam Levin, vice president of Tulane’s student government, said in an email that when Tulane University announced Kotb as commencement speaker, a few students said they didn’t believe she’s an inspirational speaker.

As of now, Kotb is still attending, but that’s not how all speaker protests end. Some end with the school disinviting the speaker or the speaker deciding not to speak.

Hoda Kotb speaking at the Washington Kennedy Center

Hoda Kotb speaking at the Washington Kennedy Center. (Photo by Susan G. Komen, taken via Flickr’s Creative Commons license)

Censoring vs. protesting

According to FIRE’s 2014 Disinvitation Report, the top three reasons behind disinvitation incidents were disagreements on the speaker’s perceived views on gay rights, followed by abortion and the “war on terror.”

From George W. Bush to Condoleezza Rice, students have vocally protested commencement speakers at universities. One incident involved Robert J. Birgeneau, physicist and ninth chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley. Haverford College invited Birgeneau to speak and receive an honorary degree during the 2014 commencement.

A group of students protested his invitation due to their view of his leadership during a 2011 incident when UC police used force on a student protesting college costs, according to The New York Times. Forty Haverford students and three professors wrote a letter to Birgeneau with conditions to fulfill before speaking at their school, including asking him to publically apologize, support reparations for the victims and explain his position on the events and what he learned from them. Due to the protest, Birgeneau withdrew as commencement speaker.

Dylan Reichman, a senior majoring in political science at Haverford, protested against Birgeneau as a sophomore. Reichman said Birgeneau represented a “lack of senior response” to police violence.

According to Reichman, the students protesting Birgeneau as commencement speaker weren’t trying to force him off campus. Reichman said they were trying to stand up for a bigger social issue: violence against non-violent protests, which speaks to the uniqueness of each commencement speaker protest.  

“A lot of people on campus took attention to the tone of the letter – which they took to us being snotty, pestilent children, and if we really wanted to create discourse with this guy we should have been more respectful,” said Reichman in a phone interview.

William G. Bowen, the former president of Princeton University who replaced Birgeneau, was quoted calling students and faculty “immature” and “arrogant” for protesting Birgeneau, according to The Washington Post.

David Frum, a writer for The Atlantic and author of the article, “The Campus Free-Speech Debates Are About Power, Not Sensitivity,” has some ideas on how universities should respond to commencement speaker protests, though he made it clear he would only answer one question.

Peaceful protest that respects the rights of others should be honored,” Frum said over email. Frum said that protests that interrupt campus activities or hinder the rights of others should have penalties up to and including expulsion.

“Where protesters raise valid points about poor choices of commencement speakers, universities should revise their selection processes for years ahead,” Frum added.

Dr. Craig Borowiak, a Haverford political science professor during Birgeneau protest, said he believes this speaker was not being censored, he was being protested – and there’s a huge difference.

“Mostly because the idea of censorship is being used by authorities to suppress protest,” Borowiak said. “Perversely, the language of free speech is being used in the service of administrative authorities to discipline, contain, and silence speech that aims to be disruptive of that authority’s power for reasons of justice.”

Free speech emerged historically as a way to protect dissenting voices from authoritative power, Borowiak said.

“These protests are not stopping speakers from speaking their mind in some general sense… they are instead disrupting invited speech,” Borowiak said. “That their speech is protested at such venues is not tantamount to a violation of a speaker’s freedom of speech rights.”

AU celebrates their December 2015 graduates.

AU celebrates their December 2015 graduates. (Photo: Alejandro Alvarez)

It’s becoming harder to inspire

While Borowiak makes it clear that not all cases are the same, there seems to be a growing number of protests in response to commencement speakers. He said commencement speakers are brought to inspire, advise and set moral coordinates, but it’s becoming harder and harder to be a guiding light “given the state of the world today.”

“Because it is about students’ futures, because their futures are newly precarious, because they have become sensitized to the power of discourse and rhetoric, and because they find in protest new modes of empowerment to counter the otherwise thoroughly disempowering burden of political and economic forces shaping the society around us,” Borowiak said.

Forrester has a different reason for why more students seem to be protesting commencement speakers. Forrester said that due to growing college debt and lack of a guarantee of a middle class life, students feel more pressure and are more willing to protest. Another issue that she believes fuel protests are invisible barriers to success, such as racial and sexual orientation discrimination.

The stakes are higher now,” Forrester said.