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Cancellation of Commencement Speakers a Slap in the Face to Academic Free Speech

Condoleezza Rice and Christine Lagarde get Caught up in Political Correctness

I’m baffled by the actions of a few universities that de facto disinvited two accomplished women who were scheduled to give commencement speeches because a group of students objected to actions that occurred during their tenure as leaders of powerful institutions. These actions reflect a slap in the face to academic free speech and the role of a university to engage the academic and broader community in civil dialogue.

Condoleezza Rice withdrew as the commencement speaker at Rutgers University because a group of students objected to her past role as U.S. Secretary of State during the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison. Rice is an accomplished foreign relations public servant. Currently, she is a Professor in Global Business and Economy at the graduate school of business at Stanford University and a past Secretary of the U.S. Department of State. The list of her accomplishments is impressive including Special Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs and Special Assistant to the Director of the Joint Chiefs of Staff -- Council on Foreign Relations. Rice is a role model for all women and persons of color. Rutgers University should never have allowed a student sit-in against Rice to violate the basic tenet of academic free speech.

Academic freedom is a core value that includes the dissemination of ideas or facts that may be undesirable or inopportune to university administrators, political parties and others. In principle, academic freedom allows for the dissemination of knowledge in research and teaching, without the fear of reprisal in the form of dismissal, harassment or repression. I guess a separate standard exists when there are objections to the person speaking because of one’s actions in the past. So, a group of students who felt offended by Rice’s past involvement in decisions related to the war in Iraq denied an even greater group that valued hearing from her and were willing to afford her the respect she deserves. The sad part is that professors can’t use her commencement speech as a teachable moment in the classroom.

As for Christine Lagarde, her offense is she is Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, the first woman to hold that post. Critics of the IMF argue that the organization has had a damaging influence on the economies of developing nations but, in reality, the IMF through its lending policies is trying to get these nations to make responsible financial and economic decisions. The objections also came from the occupy movement that seems to object to virtually any action taken by a governmental institution and corporations.

How ironic it is that the objective of a college education to foster debate of a diversity of ideas has been trashed in the name of intolerance for opposing points of view. What’s worse is the honoring by colleges of public figures, like former President Bill Clinton, whose immoral actions violated the biblical Ten Commandments.

Tulane University’s 2006 commencement speaker was Bill Clinton. Clinton has received honorary degrees from 11 universities and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom on November 20, 2013. It’s astonishing to me that universities honor a man who was a womanizer while in the White House and lied to the public about his sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky, an intern at the time. Remember his denial: I did not have sexual relations with that woman? A much-quoted statement from Clinton's grand jury testimony showed him questioning the precise use of the word "is." Clinton contended that his statement that "there's nothing going on between us" had been truthful because he had no ongoing relationship with Lewinsky at the time he was questioned. Clinton said, "It depends upon what the meaning of the word 'is' is. If the—if he—if 'is' means is and never has been, that is not—that is one thing. If it means there is none, that was a completely true statement". Ultimately, the news of his extra-marital affair and the resulting Congressional investigation led to his impeachment in 1998 by the U.S. House of Representatives and his subsequent acquittal on all impeachment charges of perjury and obstruction of justice in a 21-day Senate Trial.

What does it say about colleges that award a doctorate to a person of Clinton’s character but deny it to women who never have been investigated for wrongdoing? Yes, Rice was the Secretary of State when President Bush went to war with Afghanistan and Iraq. Yes, the later was possibly our greatest strategic blunder in the global arena. Still, the message sent by Rutgers and the eleven others is that character does not count. Being a positive role model for so many is irrelevant. The political correctness of one’s ideas and thoughts are all that matter.

As a professor teaching ethics I am appalled by the actions of Rutgers University and Smith College that denied the right of students to hear Condoleezza Rice and Christine Lagarde. Ditto for Haverford College for disinviting Robert Birgenau, the former Chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley.

Yale Law School professor Stephen Carter wrote in response to the commencement speaker withdrawals that students and faculty were actively opposing “tolerance and open-mindedness.” He raises an important point worthy of serious academic debate: “What is the point of a commencement speech? And what does that mean about the people who should be invited to deliver them?”

In the end the students at Rutgers, Smith and Haverford lost the opportunity to engage in a lively debate about the “offensive” actions of Rice and Lagarde. If it were me, I could envision dividing the students into two groups: those that support and those that oppose the decisions. Academic freedom took a hit to the gut because the ideas of the few crowded out the potential benefits to the many in the academic community and society at large.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on June 4, 2014 Dr. Mintz is a professor in the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo and also blogs at:

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