“One of the most distressing tasks of a university president is to pretend that the protest and outrage of each new generation of undergraduates is really fresh and meaningful. In fact, it is one of the most predictable controversies that we know. The participants go through a ritual of hackneyed complaints, almost as ancient as academe, while believing that what is said is radical and new.” — Clark Kerr
These words, famously uttered by the first president of the University of California, sadly seem truer today in light of recent commencement controversies than when they were stated in the 1960s. Over the past few weeks, several intellectuals slated to deliver commencement addresses at American universities have withdrawn amid student protests. From former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at Rutgers to current IMF Director Christine Lagarde at Smith, speakers are being silenced by the tassel-tossing mob now more than ever before.
Undoubtedly the most surprising victim of this heckler’s veto is Robert Birgineau, the recently retired Chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley. Despite being a champion of just about every liberal cause imaginable, Birgineau’s slated presence at Haverford College’s commencement ceremony was simply unacceptable to the graduating class 2013 because of his indirect involvement breaking up a 2011 Occupy encampment at Berkeley. The fact that this one little blemish would taint an otherwise tame intellectual speaks volumes about the discouraging state of free speech on America’s campuses.
Make no mistake about it, the 2011 incident in question is certainly a questionable use of police force, but Birgineau is hardly to blame for it. I know because I happened to be a Berkeley student at the time as well as a political columnist for the school’s newspaper, The Daily Californian. Although protesting is a daily reality of life at Berkeley, the air was particularly pungent that fall because of the growing prominence of the Occupy movement on the national stage. On November 11th, a group of protesters calling themselves Occupy Cal established an encampment on the campus’ main quad, Sproul Plaza, after the conclusion of a noon rally against a proposed UC system-wide fee hike.
The good liberal that he is, Birgineau supported the November 9th rally and the Occupy Cal movement that it birthed, going so far as to write in a subsequent email that he shared their concerns “about the extreme concentration of wealth in US society and the steady disinvestment in public higher education by California and other States.” However, he forewarned the protesters in an email sent on the Monday of that week that while their free speech would be protected, they could not establish an encampment per university policies. Nevertheless, the protesters persisted in setting up tent later that week, resulting in an infamous clash with baton-clad police officers (see video) that caught national attention — including from the Colbert Report.
While there are lots of unsettled questions (and lawsuits) in the aftermath of the violent clash, one thing is crystal clear: Birgineau is hardly to blame. For one thing, the chancellor was not even in the United States at the time of the incident, he was in China on a business trip. While a subsequent FOIA request revealed that administrators did inform him via email that batons were being used, Birgineau can hardly be blamed for the actions of campus police officers thousands of miles away. Nonetheless, the chancellor bowed to his critics upon returning to the stateside, issuing a public apology for the officers’ use of force and taking “full responsibility” for the clash.
Yet, apparently this apology wasn’t sincere enough for some members of the Haverford community — 46 of them, to be specific. Although constituting a minute amount of the already small liberal arts college, the 46 issued a letter earlier this month burdening Birgineau with a list of demands before he dare accept the invitation to speak to them. Among the demands were to make yet another public apology about the November 9th incident and to write an open letter explaining “what you learned” from the incident. That’s right, a group of twentysomething students felt so high and mighty as to lecture a 72-year-old man about his behavior as if he were a child — not the other way around.
Sadly, this sanctimonious spirit is sweeping much of America’s campuses, with numerous instances of students threatening to disrupt or actually disrupting speech if their demands aren’t met having occurred in recent years as documented by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education — a phenomenon legally known as the “heckler’s veto.” Most sickening is how shockingly explicit this “free speech in the name of censorship” crowd regarding their tactics. Just last February, for example, The Harvard Crimson published a now-notorious op-ed in which a student advocated abandoning “academic freedom” for “academic justice” — namely, the suppression of speech “promoting or justifying oppression.” Clark Kerr is rolling in his grave.
Of course, no decent person seeks to promote or justify oppression — a true “hackneyed complaint” if ever there was one. The more meaningful question is what constitutes oppression. Is what happened at Berkeley on November 9, 2011 oppression? Are so-called “microaggressions” oppression? These are hard questions where multiple perspectives should be heard, not silenced by a minority and especially not a “micro-minority” like the Haverford 42.