COMMENTARY | Q: When does Fox News throw its weight behind a political scientist, a Somali atheist, a French female globalist, and a Canadian physicist?
A: When they are all withdrawn as commencement speakers for elite college graduations.
The controversy occurred this Spring semester when student and faculty protests led to Condoleezza Rice withdrawing as Rutgers University’s commencement speaker. There was also a protest against Christine Lagarde. Lagarde, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) chief, also withdrew, this time as Smith’s College commencement speaker. A similar movement occurred when Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a critic of Islam, was denied an honorary degree at Brandeis University. And the University of California at Berkley’s president, Robert Birgeneau, similarly dropped out as Haverford College’s commencement speaker, over how he deal with protesters from the Occupy Movement.
Conservatives decried the decisions as more examples of academic bias. Student leaders of the protests explained that their actions as refusing to confer honor about some characters that had done some dishonorable things. A smart columnist pointed out that these protests reflected only a minority of the student population. Another excellent column noted that there are, indeed, few conservative speakers at colleges these days, and provided some evidence of that.
Perhaps that’s the state of elite education these days. Students who pay a lot for a really expensive education want some speaker that they approve of. And they don’t approve of many of these speakers who challenge their beliefs, even as the introduction of this column suggests that these folks would normally be ignored by conservatives, if they didn’t have some conservative beliefs or actions.
When I came to LaGrange College, one of the first things I did was schedule my class to attend one of GOP Rep. Bob Barr’s town hall meetings (which occurred right after 9/11). Later that semester, I had them meet ex-Rep. Buddy Darden, Barr’s Democratic electoral rival. Barr was invited to campus in 2004, and I even drove him back to Atlanta. I’ve brought in conservatives like Herman Cain, Rep. Phil Gingrey and Secretary of State Karen Handel, in addition to liberals like Vernon Jones, Carl Camon, and a speaker from the ACLU.
I’ve had libertarians (John Monds), Republicans (Josh McKoon, Randy Nix, Jeff Brown, Mitch Seabaugh, Seth Harp, Dan Lee, Bill Hamrick, Duke Blackburn) and Democrats (Carl Von Epps, Bob Trammell) who are incumbents or candidates for state or local offices, and even a skyping session with GOP Sen. Johnny Isakson. One of my favorite events was a televised debate between U.S. Congressman Lynn Westmoreland and his Democratic opponent Stephen Camp.
Our college has hosted Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), as well as former Rep. Jim Leach (R-IA) as commencement speakers. We’ve had also had ex-Rep. Bo Callaway (R-GA) and former Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-NE) give the graduation speech.
LaGrange College may never be considered elite in anything outside of the South for publications like the U.S. News and World Report. But if you’d like college students to be exposed to a variety of viewpoints, LaGrange College seems to be doing a better job than most.
John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga.