A fusillade of attacks by students and faculty on commencement speakers and honorary degree awardees at four of our better known schools — Smith, Haverford, Rutgers and Brandeis — has tarnished this year’s commencement season beyond any in recent memory. Speakers as distinguished as Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund Christine Lagarde, former Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have been forced to withdraw even as Ayaan Hirsi Ali, one of the most courageous fighters of oppression on the planet, had to walk from her honorary degree from a university established in the shadow of the Holocaust. Go figure.
What next? The Bill of Rights gets repealed? An academic “War on Women”? (Three of the four attacked are female.) A new generation of undergraduate Brown Shirts comes back from 1930s Berlin to smash every college window and burn every school library book by unapproved authors in a renewed Kristallnacht?
Of course all of the above dignitaries finally walked away voluntarily from their campus honors, underlining the juvenile absurdity of these same students and faculty, not to mention the paleo-milquetost behavior of their administrations. Mercifully, William G. Bowen, the former Princeton president who replaced Lagarde as Haverford commencement speaker, called out the protestors as “immature” and “arrogant” during his speech, an understatement, to be sure, but welcome nonetheless.
This would all be great fodder for Saturday Night Live, if it still had any spine. Or a tough conservative or libertarian comedy show, if there were one. But in the final analysis, it’s not all that funny. Something is seriously wrong with our university system — as if we didn’t know. And the fault is less with the students — they are what they are and finally just young people — as with the faculties, especially in the social sciences and what’s left of the humanities. (There can’t be much left in a system where, even at UCLA, English majors are no longer required to read Shakespeare and Milton. The way things are going, it won’t be long before they aren’t even allowed to read them voluntarily — or at least without an introduction warning the student to beware of the author’s “privilege.”)