On campuses all over the country it is Commencement season. Even at Princeton, where the graduation comes late, there are clear signs that it’s arriving soon. The little pointed stick fences that define the precincts for the class reunions, stored in some unknown warehouse for eleven and a half months of the year, have been up for a week or more. And if it is Commencement time it naturally is Commencement speaker debacle time. I speak of the world at large. On this campus there is, by laudable ancient custom, no Commencement speaker. Instead, the President makes brief remarks.
The Commencement speaker debacle takes a couple of forms, with the first and most obvious being inherent in the dubious genre of the academic oration. There are simply a lot of really bad Commencement addresses, and if one thinks about it for a moment it is probably surprising that there are not more. The reasons for this situation will be found in the want of consensus concerning what a commencement address should be. Many institutions, hoping of course to honor their graduates but hoping even more to achieve something of a public relations coup seek out popular celebrities, and in our country such celebrity is but rarely combined with intellectual distinction or oratorical ability.
I well remember the Commencement speech at my own graduation from Sewanee in 1958 — meaning that I remember that I couldn’t remember one thing the guy had said the next day. The guy in this instance — and I think I do remember this part — was the CEO of the United States Steel Corporation. We were all puzzled why this captain of industry should be addressing the graduates of our little liberal arts college. In those days I was so innocent about the realities of governance and finance in American higher education that I did not realize that struggling colleges need rich people and seek them out in oblique ways and try to shake them down with such flattery as they command.
The actual close connections between the ivory tower and the workaday world are highlighted by a second kind of Commencement Address debacle, that of the Commencement speech that never gets delivered on account the disinvitation or coerced withdrawal of the featured speaker. In general it may be said that the undelivered Commencement address gets a good deal more public notice than it ever would if delivered. “Heard melodies are sweet,” writes Keats, “but those unheard are sweeter.
Since the Campus Culture Wars began in earnest in the late sixties there have been quite a few such episodes, and this spring we have already had a bumper crop. The three most prominent instances that have come to my attention so far involve some serious institutions of higher learning: Brandeis, Rutgers, and Smith. All three of the distinguished dissees have been women: Ayaan Hirsi Ali (usually categorized as a “feminist activist” but occasionally as a “celebrity atheist”), Condoleezza Rice (one-time Provost of Stanford University and a former Secretary of State) and Christine Lagarde (the current head of the International Monetary Fund).
On what basis the powers that be at Brandeis decided to offer Ayaan Hirsi Ali an honorary degree along with her speaker’s gig would be difficult to say. She has been quite voluble and on the whole rather negative concerning the religion in which she was raised and genitally mutilated; but the Brandeis board had apparently not heard about that part. When they did, they concluded that she did not share Brandeis “core values” and therefore did not merit a Brandeis degree. One cannot discern whether President Frederick Lawrence of Brandeis is at all shamefaced about this, since his face is thickly covered with egg down to about the level of the knee cap.
Had the Rutgers power structure consulted me early on about their proposed invitation to Condaleezza Rice I might have been able to warn them. Shortly before I retired from Princeton our Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs was celebrating its dequascentennial. (You don’t get a chance to use that word every day, so grab the chance when it comes!). The dean issued an invitation to Dr. Rice to give a talk at the event. From my obscure point of view an invitation from a school of public and international affairs to a professor of public affairs who happened also to be a Secretary of State seemed at the very least plausible, but it was bitterly opposed by a faculty petition. The dean, I am proud to say, ignored this collegial gnashing of teeth.
My ignorance of the dismal science, so fatal to my understanding of the modern world generally, prevents me from knowing why Smith College sisterhood proved so weak as to weasel out of an invitation to Christine Lagarde, the French antitrust lawyer who is now head of the International Monetary Fund. I know little about her except that she replaced Dominique Strauss-Kahn, which has to be a good thing, and that her English-speaking voice is very appealing, especially when compared with that of Janet Yellin, the American native-speaker who is the other eminent female economist of the moment. True, I have difficulty imagining the degree of undergraduate excitement spurred by this invitation in the first place. “Guess who our Commencement speaker is going to be! The head of the IMF!” But Smith has ordered things in a way sufficiently disgraceful to allow the Huffington Post to huff and the Wall Street Journal to wail.