Posted on | May 19, 2014 | 20 Comments
Sunday afternoon, our family attended a nice party to celebrate our son-in-law’s graduation from law school. It was a nice opportunity for me to hassle my daughter and her husband about the need to provide me with grandchildren, and also to tell some of my favorite lawyer jokes, but it was just fun. No need to bring politics into it. My son-in-law is more liberal than me, but then again, everybody is more liberal than me. Why argue about politics at a graduation party?
In a surprising move, a commencement speaker at Haverford College on Sunday used the celebratory occasion to deliver a sharp rebuke to students who had mounted a campaign against another speaker who had been scheduled to appear but withdrew amid the controversy.
William G. Bowen, former president of Princeton and a nationally respected higher education leader, called the student protestors’ approach both “immature” and “arrogant” and the subsequent withdrawal of Robert J. Birgeneau, former chancellor of the University of California Berkeley, a “defeat” for the Quaker college and its ideals.
Bowen’s remarks to an audience of about 2,800 that gave him a standing ovation added a new twist to commencement speaker controversies playing out increasingly on college campuses across the nation. Bowen faced no opposition, but chose to defend a fellow speaker who was targeted, calling the situation “sad” and “troubling.”
Rutgers University also held commencement on Sunday without former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who withdrew after professors and students there protested her appearance for her role in the Iraq war. Smith and Brandeis, too, saw the loss of speakers this year.
At Haverford, the controversy arose over Birgeneau’s leadership during a 2011 incident in which UC Berkeley police used force on students protesting college costs. A group of more than 40 students and three Haverford professors — all Berkeley alums — objected to Birgeneau’s appearance and receipt of an honorary degree, noting that many of them had participated in Occupy protests as well and wanted to stand in solidarity with Berkeley students.
They wrote a letter to Birgeneau, urging him to meet nine conditions, including publicly apologizing, supporting reparations for the victims, and writing a letter to Haverford students explaining his position on the events and “what you learned from them.”
Bowen – who made clear he took no position on Birgeneau’s handling of the Berkeley student demonstration — blasted the Haverford protestors’ approach.
“I am disappointed that those who wanted to criticize Birgeneau’s handling of events at Berkeley chose to send him such an intemperate list of “demands,” said Bowen, who led Princeton from 1972 to 1988 and last year received the National Humanities Medal from President Obama. “In my view, they 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.”