In a little less than five weeks, Condoleeza Rice will deliver the commencement address at Rutgers University, just a hair under two miles from where I live. This impending event has raised a good deal of angst and ire among the faculty and some students of the university. I'm an alum and a part-time lecturer there, so I have some perspective from a number of angles.
I don't like to discuss politics in this forum, but without going into detail we can assume that Dr. Rice and I might agree on some pieces of classical music and little else. Since it is highly unlikely we'll ever meet (there will be upwards of 50,000 people at the commencement, and we're not all getting face time), the point is probably irrelevent. But I do have my objections to some of her actions and policies, which I note simply for context.
The debate that has gone on since Ms. Rice (I'll refrain from future references as "Dr. Rice" because I don't want people to go to her for a diagnosis--see your primary care physician) was announced as the speaker has been vivid and spirited. Many have called for a retraction of the invitation issued by the university for her to attend the event and speak. They have been met with bland statements from the Rutgers administration about how we should have free discourse on campus and little else.
I should point out at this moment that I will definitely be attending the commencement despite my sincere objections to the speaker. Normally, I would ignore the event as I have done pretty much every year since 1979, when I was required to show up so I could get my diploma (yes, I know I could have gotten it without showing up--that's called "artistic license," or "laziness"), and to introduce the speaker that year, John Kenneth Galbraith. As vice president of the senior class, I delivered what would have no doubt been a rollicking speech if the echoes in the newly built Rutgers Athletic Center had not obscured my words to everyone, including me. But this year I will attend, breaking a string of 34 years that I had assiduously not shown up, essentially due to indifference.
The Rice speech evokes free speech issues for me. I believe that a university especially should be a place where all points of view are respected and debated, but I think common sense demands that a line be drawn. I don't think this year's speaker crosses any line I'd consider a deal breaker. I simply disagree with her.
But I do think that a university commencement is not the place for such a debate. It should be a celebration of the accomplishment of the graduates. It should be about them. (It never is, by the way, no matter who is invited to speak.) The controversy over this year's speaker distracts from the students, and I object to that.
I also believe that any speech, particularly one at a celebratory event, should be entertaining. I think everything should be entertaining (as loyal readers of this space will hopefully attest), but understand that when the occasion is a somber or tense one, it's possible the laughs should be kept to a minimum. When I was asked to suggest a speaker in 1979, I brought up the names Mel Brooks and Bill Cosby. We got John Kenneth Galbraith. Such is the nature of higher education.
Personally, I think every commencement address should go like this. But I'm reallistic enough to know they can't. It's a shame.
Still, I believe the invitation by Rutgers was wrong. I disagree with the presentation of an honorary degree because that constitutes an endorsement of the speaker. I don't think that's appropriate here. That being said, I don't think the invitation should be revoked. It would simply be rude. No, the invitation should never have been issued to being with. That's my point of view; your mileage may vary.
Free speech is a funny thing: We're all for it when the speech involved takes up our position on something, and not so crazy about the concept when it applies to those we wish with all our hearts would shut up. That's not how it works; if you believe your point of view is sacrosanct, then the other must be just as well protected.
We won't discuss hate speech. Who needs that kind of topic on a Monday morning?
I'll go to the commencement this year. I'll listen to the speaker, and I'll no doubt hear some boos or see some people turn their backs (this is New Jersey, and asking everyone to be respectful and polite is just unrealistic). That's fine. Those are two other forms of free expression. I probably will end up being bored by the oration. I'm not going for that part of the event, anyway.
I'm attending this year's commencement because someone far more important than the featured speaker will be in attendance. And I would show up if Satan himself were being given an honorary doctorate in, I don't know, brimstone management. Nothing is keeping me away in 2014.
My daughter Eve Cohen will be among the graduates this year. That trumps any speaker the university could have put up on the marquee. I'll be there if I have to walk (and I might). And that woman up on the platform, blathering away about whatever she'll be blathering away about, couldn't matter less. I'll stand and applaud at another time during the program.
That's my idea of free speech.