When Vice President Mike Pence spoke and received an honorary degree at the University of Notre Dame’s commencement on Sunday, a small number of protesters — 150 or so out of a 24,000-person audience — quietly rose from their seats and filed to the exits. The departing students had announced their intention to do so, in protest of the Trump administration’s policies and Pence’s own record as governor of the state, grounding their objections in their understanding of the Roman Catholic social teaching Notre Dame emphasizes.
The protest was lumped in with recent incidents on other campuses where speeches and lectures have been disrupted or prevented from happening. Charles Murray at Middlebury College is the most conspicuous case; the shutting down of a Northwestern University sociology class that had invited an Immigration and Customs Enforcement official to speak, the most recent. Some of these incidents are less than they are made to appear by media reports: For example, the violent protests that prevented a lecture by Milo Yiannopoulos at the University of California at Berkeley seem to have been dominated by nonstudents. But the events — and the media coverage of them — have all added up to a popular perception that progressive students can’t bear the thought of disagreement.
The narrative of students as (inevitably, tiresomely) "snowflakes" too delicate to handle the possibility of dissent is mostly wrong, generalizing from a handful of cases out of tens of thousands of university lectures, speeches, debates, and workshops per year. A lot of that narrative is cultivated by and for the sake of people who make a good living from it. But even bad-faith critics and scolds can make a good point, and one that they have made repeatedly is the difference between civil protest that registers disagreement, and actions that disrupt or prevent speech.
Were the students who walked out of Mike Pence’s address "snowflakes" afraid of hearing ideas they don’t like? I’ve never been one of 150 or so people trying to calmly do something amid a crowd of 24,000 who didn’t want us to do it. The walkout, however, doesn’t strike me as the meek or cowardly action of those who don’t believe in dissent. It was a civil, dignified, and nondisruptive expression of dissent, in the clear understanding that the large majority of the crowd disagreed.
The difference from a case like Murray’s lecture goes beyond tactics. Murray spoke with the sponsorship of a student group and the political-science department. Universities encourage departments and campus associations to organize such events, bringing a range of views and arguments into campus intellectual life. Some contributions are better than others, but the rule is that the university won’t interfere with the decisions made by those sponsoring groups. It will instead trust the processes of continuing debate, critique, and argument to run their course.
A commencement speaker receiving an honorary degree is not a part of that system. Both the degree and the speaking invitation itself are honors the university confers. The speech is not the opportunity for debate and exchange — there is no question-and-answer period. The audience is not there to listen to the speaker; it is there to graduate or watch a loved one do so. This is not the university permitting its members to host a range of speakers and to voluntarily engage with their ideas; it is the university singling someone out to be honored, with part of the honor being the opportunity to give a one-way address to the university’s largest audience.
And it is entirely reasonable and appropriate for members of the university community to object when they think these high honors are being conferred upon those who are dishonorable. "We are too apt to admire and almost to worship the fortunate, the powerful, and the rich," to the detriment of our good judgment about who is actually admirable, Adam Smith argued.
Universities are certainly vulnerable to this. The routine arguments about honorees — sometimes resulting in disinvitations, sometimes in walkouts, sometimes in counterceremonies or other forms of protests — do universities a service. They remind us to pay attention to whether we are honoring the honorable, praising the praiseworthy, or whether we are merely flattering the powerful.
In this case, I agree with the particular judgment the protesters made — I don’t think that academe should honor those serving in high office in the dishonorable Trump administration — but my point here is broader than that agreement. I mean it to encompass cases with which I disagree, too. Objecting to an honorary-degree recipient isn’t even slightly an impingement on the university’s norms of free and open inquiry. It is not a matter of not wanting to hear unwelcome ideas. It’s an argument with precisely the judgment that is at issue: whether this person stands out as worthy of a university’s high honors, and whether graduating students should be honored by their presence.
Too many off-campus critics seem uninterested in such complexities. When a case like the conferring of an honorary degree gets run together with the routine business of guest lecturers and invited speakers, the crucial distinction between allowing speech and endorsing it is undermined. The university does fundamentally endorse the commencement speaker; it does not endorse the scores of ordinary guest lectures on campus in a year.
Likewise, when thoughtful, civil, quiet protesters get tarred with the same "safe-space snowflake" brush as their violent, disruptive, or censorious counterparts, the crucial distinction between engaging in debate and suppressing it gets weakened. Students are smart enough to notice a constantly shifting standard, and to realize when apparent statements of principle are opportunistically jettisoned. If the de facto operative standard is "any form of objecting to any conservative speaker is bad and will bring the same criticisms," protesters won’t have reason to believe any principled arguments about better and worse kinds of protest, and things will get very much worse.
The "snowflake"-hating off-campus ratings-seekers might not care. But those of us genuinely interested in free and open campus inquiry must.
Jacob T. Levy is a professor of political science and director of the Yan P. Lin Centre for the Study of Freedom and Global Orders in the Ancient and Modern Worlds at McGill University. He is the author of Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom (Oxford, 2015), and a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center.