The stunning move by a commencement speaker at Haverford College on Sunday to use the celebratory occasion to lambaste students who had protested against another speaker drew a standing ovation but also sharp criticism.
William G. Bowen, former president of Princeton, called the protestors’ approach both “immature” and “arrogant” and the subsequent withdrawal as a speaker 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, plus nearly 300 graduates, added a new twist to commencement speaker controversies playing out increasingly on college campuses. Bowen — one of three speakers who received an honorary degree — faced no opposition, but chose to address the issue, calling it “sad” and “troubling.”
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, 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 victims, and writing a letter to Haverford students explaining his position on the events and “what you learned from them.” Birgeneau declined and withdrew.
“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.”
Bowen’s remarks stung some students and professors, who criticized his decision to chide graduates on their day in a forum where they had no opportunity to respond.
“It was an ambush,” said Maud<NO1>cq<NO> McInerney, an associate professor of English and chair of Haverford’s English department who signed the letter to Birgeneau. “It is really unfair to shame students at their graduation. It’s a captive audience. That’s an abuse of power.”
Others, who attended the outdoor campus ceremony under sunny skies, applauded the move.
“His remarks were appropriate and justified,” said Bo Abrams, a senior political science major from Los Angeles. “He said all the right things in response ...to a blown out of proportion situation.”
There was even disagreement within families. Joanna Kessler, a senior history of art major from Mobile, Ala., said though not among the student protestors, she disliked Bowen’s remarks.
“I thought they were excellent,” said her father, Tom Kessler.
“You did?” she responded, her eyes widening.
“I’m not a fan of the actions of the chancellor but I do believe points of view should be expressed,” he said.
<NO1>Increasingly, however, controversies are arising over commencement speakers. <NO>Rutgers University also held commencement on Sunday without former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who withdrew after professors and students there protested for her role in the Iraq war. Smith and Brandeis, too, lost speakers this year.
Bowen — who took no position on Birgeneau’s handling of the Berkeley situation — also criticized Birgeneau’s response. Birgeneau declined student demands in a curt e-mail.
Birgeneau, Bowen said, failed “to make proper allowance for the immature, and, yes, arrogant inclinations of some protestors. Aggravated as he had every right to be, I think he should be with us today.”
Suzanne Martin, there to see her son, Paul, graduate, agreed with Bowen’s assessment.
“It was a missed opportunity on both sides,” said Martin, of Chicago.
Her husband, Hart Weichselbaum, added: “Students have the excuse of being 21 years old. What’s his (Birgeneau) excuse?”
Bowen also took aim at Michael Rushmore, a senior political science major from London, who called Birgeneau’s withdrawal “a minor victory.”
“It represents nothing of the kind,” Bowen asserted. “...I regard this outcome as a defeat, pure and simple, for Haverford — no victory for anyone who believes, as I think most of us do, in both openness to many points of view and mutual respect.”
Rushmore said he was disappointed that Bowen lashed out. He said he wished that Bowen would have taken a position on Birgeneau’s actions in the 2011 incident instead.
“What we wanted to talk about was whether Birgeneau made the right decision,” he said. “We thought he hadn’t and he hadn’t been held accountable.”
Bowen also recounted other instances in which speakers faced protest with a better outcome, including a case at Princeton when protestors merely stood and turned their backs to George Shultz, former secretary of state, who addressed the crowd.
“Princeton emerged from this mini-controversy more committed than ever to honoring both the right to protest in proper ways and the accomplishments of someone with whose views on some issues many disagreed.”