A Bid to ‘Control a Contagion’ of Commencement Protests

Haverford College

William G. Bowen, a former president of Princeton U., spoke to graduates of Haverford College on Sunday. People should protest, he said, “but protest in civil and nondisruptive ways.”
May 20, 2014

William G. Bowen wanted to "control a contagion."

When he volunteered to take over as Haverford College’s commencement speaker after a controversy over the college’s previous choice, Mr. Bowen wanted to remind students that there are ways to protest civilly, he said in an interview on Monday.

Mr. Bowen, a former president of Princeton University, spoke in a graduation season that has seen a remarkable string of controversies (see "A Field Guide to This Spring’s Commencement-Speaker Outrage"). Among the speakers who have withdrawn from commencement engagements are Condoleezza Rice, a former U.S. secretary of state who had been set to speak at Rutgers University, and Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, who was to have appeared at Smith College. Student and faculty protests also preceded a decision by Brandeis University to reverse course and say it would not award an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a campaigner for women’s rights and a fierce critic of Islam.

Students protested speakers this spring for a range of reasons. Many of the speakers went on to dispense advice to graduates anyway.

At Ohio State University, students had complained that Chris Matthews, the MSNBC talk-show host, was someone they didn’t know and didn’t care about. Mr. Matthews spoke there on May 4.

At Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, some students and alumni have protested the choice of Mike Johnston, a Democratic state senator in Colorado, because of his stance on education reform, which the protesters say "relies heavily on test-based accountability." Senator Johnston, an alumnus of the school, is scheduled to speak at its convocation, set for May 28.

List of Demands

At Haverford, Mr. Bowen replaced the college’s selected commencement speaker, Robert J. Birgeneau, a former chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley. Mr. Birgeneau withdrew from the engagement after students and a few professors sent him a list of demands urging him to apologize for how he had handled student protests at Berkeley as chancellor.

That was the wrong way to get the point across, Mr. Bowen said on Monday.

"It would have been perfectly in order to communicate with the chancellor why they were displeased or troubled or concerned … saying they would hope to meet and discuss their issues when he came," Mr. Bowen said. "That would’ve been very different."

Mr. Bowen, who had already been scheduled to speak at Haverford’s commencement, said he had volunteered to fill the time vacated by Mr. Birgeneau.

"People should of course protest, and it is essential if they have that right," Mr. Bowen added. "But protest in civil and nondisruptive ways."

Students are making more "demands," Mr. Bowen said, and not encouraging discussion—a trend similar to the student protests of the 1960s and 1970s. Social media, and the ease with which opinions can be shared through those platforms, might be partly to blame for the recent surge in protests of commencement speakers, Mr. Bowen said.

He wishes the speakers whose invitations become controversial would sit down with the protesters and talk about their concerns. Mr. Birgeneau, Mr. Bowen said, should never have stayed home.

Campuses, Mr. Bowen said, "should be crossroads where diverse points of view can be heard and debated."