Commencement Angst and Resolve

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

June 13, 2011

Commencement season in academe inevitably brings controversy. Aside from the worry over who will graduate and if the weather will hold, graduation season occasionally sparks minor drama: Who will be the main speaker? What honorary degrees will be given, if any? And who gets to decide?

This year, perhaps as a result of the polarized state of our national politics, the continuing economic uncertainty, or the continuing wars, there has been an unusual edge to news surrounding commencements. The controversy around the honorary degree to be awarded (and then rescinded, and then awarded) to Tony Kushner by the City University of New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice has been widely publicized. The University of Michigan faced significant student backlash when Governor Rick Snyder was selected as commencement speaker. My own institution's 2010 recognition of the Red Sox hero Curt Shilling, now a prominent video-game-industry executive, is cited as an example of an "unearned" degree.

How one would actually "earn" an honorary degree is an interesting question. But c'mon folks, lighten up. Schilling's bloody sock was a symbol of Bostonian superiority only a few years ago, and he brought a welcome festive air to a ceremony in which honorary degrees were also awarded to a successful college president and an outstanding young pioneer in life-science research.

My institution has had the good fortune to bring in a rich variety of industry leaders as commencement speakers, including the CEO's of major technology, pharmaceutical, and manufacturing companies. To a person, they have been inspiring speakers, gracious guests, and interested visitors. We award them honorary degrees to recognize their achievements in their fields, but we do not pay speakers' fees. It is a celebration of mutual goals and aspirations that has worked well.

However, this year's selection of our commencement speaker—Rex Tillerson, chairman and CEO of Exxon Mobil Corp.—brought a more serious objection from faculty members and students concerned with the company's environmental track record. Our institution has a strong commitment to sustainability, made manifest in our investment in green construction, our environmental-related academic programs, and our President's Sustainability Task Force. We are guided in that commitment not by ideology, but by the critically important challenge to balance environmental protection, economic development, and social justice.

Critics of our decision to bring in Tillerson as the speaker saw too great a disparity between the corporation's actions and the college's views on sustainability. (A case can be made that our views are not so far apart, but that is for a different article.) Dissenters began registering formal and well-organized objections via print and electronic news media. They promoted a plan whereby dissenting students would walk out of the commencement ceremony when the speaker was introduced, repair to an "alternative" ceremony with a speaker of their own choosing, and then rejoin the main ceremony to receive diplomas with their classmates.

Our initial response to that proposal was that students who left the main ceremony would not be allowed to return, because it would create confusion and jeopardize our ability to award diplomas to the nearly 1,000 graduates arriving on the platform in the same order in which their diplomas would be arranged. Freedom of speech was assured, but not freedom of action.

Rather than ignore the potential problem or deny a platform to the dissenting faculty members and students, however, the administration invited protest leaders to continue to discuss their concerns and possible resolutions with our student-life staff members.

And they reached a workable solution: Students who chose to protest would arrive at the main ceremony after the speaker had concluded, taking seats reserved for them in the student section and thereby registering their dissent. The institution also agreed to make the official commencement venue available for an alternate event following the main ceremony so that dissenting students could hear remarks from a speaker of their choosing (Richard Heinberg, senior fellow at the Post Carbon Institute).

The result was a successful day, with a superb commencement speech delivered by a gracious speaker; a small number of graduates exercising their option to arrive late to the main ceremony, and a fair number of students, faculty members, and friends attending the later event.

Important lessons emerged, even on this last day of our graduates' enrollment. Acting responsibly on one's passions and deeply held beliefs, whether or not they conform to the dominant view, is both honorable and important. Civil, respectful engagement on matters of disagreement was key to the successful outcome. And continuing awareness of the many stresses affecting our world views in these troubling times is essential to meaningful progress, whether on the commencement platform or the world stage. This generation of students has great potential, of which we can be enormously proud.

Dennis Berkey is president and CEO of Worcester Polytechnic Institute, in Worcester, Mass.