Jay Fleitman: Campuses are caving in to students unwilling to hear the views of others

Last modified: Wednesday, June 04, 2014
NORTHAMPTON — The academic year is over and college students have graduated or left campus. The unfortunate mark left behind by this last school year was the controversy surrounding prominent commencement speakers who did not get to the podium.

Condoleezza Rice withdrew from giving the commencement speech at Rutgers University after student protesters accused the former secretary of state of being a “war criminal.” Christine Lagarde, one of the planet’s most influential people as director of the International Monetary Fund, changed her mind and declined the invitation to give the commencement speech at Smith College after an online petition gathered 500 student and faculty signatures to protest her attendance as head of an organization said to suppress women in poor countries.

Robert Bireneau was the former chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley, otherwise considered a very liberal university leader, similarly declined to give the speech at the graduation of Haverford College when 50 students signed a protest letter over his unforgivable transgression of having the police involved when members of the Occupy Cal movement unlawfully disrupted his university campus.

The most egregious cowardice belongs to the administration of Brandeis University, which withdrew the invitation of an honorary degree to the international women’s activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali. She was born into Somali Muslim society and was a frontline witness to the abuse and suppression of women in some Muslim communities. The administration at Brandeis awarded her instead the insult of withdrawing this honorary degree after her presence was protested by some Muslim students.

It is not clear at first glance why Rice, Lagarde, and Bireneau declined these invitations, after initially accepting. It is impossible to believe their public statements that they did not want the controversy around their presence to distract from the joyousness of the students’ graduation experience. All three are or were major forces in their domains and certainly were no strangers to weathering controversy with the likes of world and political leaders.

Certainly, a few protesting undergraduates were never going to intimidate people of this stature.

It takes time and work to prepare a lecture of any length and thought, and for the speakers it also takes time away from their lives and work to travel to these universities. I suspect that a likely motivation for them to withdraw was a disinterest in being exposed to the possible spectacle of heckling and being shouted down by protesting students, as has become such a common occurrence on campus. An alternative scenario was the possibility that administrators behind the scenes asked the speakers not to come because they were unsure they could control the student body from causing disruptions.

Students have a tacit license on campus to shout down or otherwise disrupt speakers with opinions that they do not like. Heckling may be considered by some an act of commitment and daring in support of a passionate belief. Implicit in the attempt to suppress the expression of a speaker with whom the student disagrees is that the opinion of the heckler is more reasoned and of more value than that of the speaker, no matter how experienced or accomplished the speaker may be.

This act is much like that of a child putting his fingers in both ears and shouting at the top of his lungs so he won’t hear what he finds objectionable.

This brown shirt behavior of shouting down a speaker not only betrays disrespect for others and their experience, but a lack of respect for freedom of speech and a lack of recognition that others in the audience have a right to hear the speaker’s opinions.

University administrations allow this to happen. It is unclear if this stems from administrators being intimidated by students or by administrations being concerned about looking authoritarian when trying to control disruptive behavior. Universities are enablers of this behavior by not levying consequences on students who engage in this disruptive harassment, which suppresses the opinions and rights of the speakers and the other students who wish to listen.

It appears at times that universities even value this behavior as it demonstrates that their students are passionate and committed. This is an inheritance from the 1960s, when students took to protest over such weighty matters as the Vietnam War and civil rights. Before the 1960s, disrupting and shouting down a speaker would have been a transgression unacceptable on a college campus dedicated to the free exchange of ideas.

Perhaps the time may come when universities again value the open exchange of ideas and freedom of speech over the rights of bullying and harassment by poorly behaved students. This would mean that universities become willing to impose consequences for this behavior which would then again be unacceptable.

I’m not holding my breath.

Jay Fleitman, M.D., lives in Northampton. His column appears the first Tuesday of the month. He can be reached at opinion@gazettenet.com.