A Field Guide to This Spring's Commencement-Speaker Outrage

May 20, 2014

Controversies over commencement speakers are practically an annual tradition on college campuses, and this spring has seen a rising tide of protests. Graduation speakers at large public universities and small private colleges have faced a range of complaints, leading some to withdraw in the face of outrage and others to persevere after taking a few lumps from their critics.

The following is a field guide to some of 2014's most prominent commencement-season dramas.

Complaint: "We don’t know who this guy is"

Speaker: Chris Matthews, talk-show host at MSNBC
College: Ohio State University

Some students said that they had no say in choosing Mr. Matthews, and some complained of not knowing who Mr. Matthews is. “The response from students is simply that we don’t know who this guy is, we don’t care about this guy,” one student told The Columbus Dispatch.

Result: Spoke on May 4

Complaint: Sins of the past?

Speaker: Condoleezza Rice, Stanford University professor and former U.S. secretary of state
College: Rutgers University

Ms. Rice backed out after her selection drew vocal protests from students and faculty members, who objected to her role in the administration of President George W. Bush.

Result: Withdrew on May 3

Speaker: Robert J. Birgeneau, former chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley
College: Haverford College

Mr. Birgeneau withdrew after students and faculty members questioned his leadership during a 2011 incident when university police officers used force against student protesters. (See a related article: "A Bid to 'Control a Contagion' of Commencement Protests.")

Result: Withdrew on May 13

Speaker: Janet Napolitano, president of the University of California and former U.S. secretary of homeland security
College: University of California's Hastings College of Law

Protesters raised concerns about the number of people deported while Ms. Napolitano was secretary of homeland security.

Result: Spoke on May 10

Speaker: Michael Bloomberg, businessman and former mayor of New York City
College: Harvard University

Some students felt that Mr. Bloomberg's support for a "stop-and-frisk" policy for the New York City police made him an inappropriate choice as commencement speaker.

Result: Set to speak on May 29

Complaint: What a lightweight?

Speaker: U.S. Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy III, Democrat of Massachusetts
College: University of Virginia Law School

A letter to the law school's dean, Paul G. Mahoney, suggested that Mr. Kennedy had done nothing to merit his selection and was a member of a "dying dynasty."

Result: Spoke on May 18

Speaker: Sean Combs, rapper and record producer
College: Howard University

Some people on the campus were skeptical of Mr. Combs's reputation and believed he did not live up to the standards a commencement speaker should meet.

Result: Spoke on May 10

Complaint: What a mess

Speaker: Dustin Lance Black, Oscar-winning screenwriter
College: Pasadena City College

Mr. Black eventually spoke at the college's commencement after reports surfaced that he had been disinvited after trustees learned that explicit photos of him and a former boyfriend surfaced online. Mr. Black agreed to speak after his replacement, a public-health official with the City of Pasadena, withdrew amid controversy over his statements about gay people.

Result: Spoke on May 9

Complaint: "Directly against" a college's values

Speaker: Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund
College: Smith College

Ms. Lagarde withdrew in the face of protests against her and the IMF, saying that she did not want to detract from the occasion. An online petition opposing her appearance said her selection went "directly against" the college's values.

Result: Withdrew on May 12

Complaint: You won't believe what they believe

Speakers: Greg and Susan Gianforte, entrepreneurs and philanthropists
College: Montana Tech

Mr. and Mrs. Gianforte drew fire from critics who said that their social and religious views contradicted the institution's science-focused mission. Their family foundation once donated to a creationist dinosaur museum.

Result: Spoke on May 17

Speaker: Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League
College: Suffolk University Law School

Students criticized Mr. Foxman for his opposition to the United States' recognition of the Armenian genocide, as well as his opposition to an Islamic community center near the site of the World Trade Center.

Result: Spoke on May 17

Speaker: Michael Johnston, Democratic member of the Colorado State Senate
College: Harvard University Graduate School of Education

Students, faculty members, and alumni are protesting Mr. Johnston's selection over his positions on education reform.

Result: Set to speak on May 28

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