Column: Diversity on campus? Perish the thought

It's commencement season, cellphones off please, no texts or tweets. Even with a hangover from debt, alcohol or regret, grads across the land may be lucky enough to hear something on the Big Day that actually stays with them.

Among the best of the past were the words of the novelist David Foster Wallace, talking to the newly minted at Kenyon College in 2005. If you can't learn to "construct meaning from experience," he said, "you will be totally hosed."

There was Steve Jobs, college dropout, at Stanford in the same year, on mortality: "Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life."

And don't forget the lasting guidance from Stephen Colbert at Knox College in 2006: "The best career advice I can give you is to get your own TV show. It pays well, the hours are good, and you are famous. And eventually, some very nice people will give you a doctorate in fine arts for doing jack squat."

This year, there's the remarkable life story of the African-American scholar who grew up in the segregated South and rose to become secretary of state. Didn't hear that one? Nobody did. Condoleezza Rice was scheduled to give the 248th anniversary commencement address at Rutgers University today. She canceled after a small knot of protesters pressured the university. It's no contest who showed more class.

Near as I can tell, the forces of intolerance objected to her role in the Iraq war. Okay. And by shutting her down, the point is … what? That extremism, whether in the climate-denial echo chamber of Republican Party elites or in the fragile zone of college faculty lounges, is the worst enemy of free speech.

Thanks to the bigots, Smith College graduates will be deprived of the thoughts of Christine Lagarde, chief of the International Monetary Fund. She withdrew under pressure from people who object to the IMF's role in the "strengthening of imperialist and patriarchal systems." So, one of the world's most powerful women will not share insights with one of the nation's most prominent women's colleges because of a concern about patriarchy. Evil men — that'll show 'em.

This was followed by the swift departure of Robert J. Birgeneau, a former chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, as a speaker at Haverford College. Yes, you heard that right: The man from Berkeley is not suitable for the sensitive souls of Haverford.

For guidance, these censors could have consulted the Rutgers student mission statement. "We embrace difference by cultivating inclusiveness and respect of both people and points of view." Diversity of perspective? Thy name should be academia.

But of late, too many schools are opting for well-vetted bores. Pursue your dream, live your own life, don't forget to floss or use sunscreen, and if you're forced to share a hall with people you don't like, shout them down and kick them out the door.

The foreign policy that Rice guided for George W. Bush — two wars on the credit card, making torture a word associated with the United States — was clearly a debacle. Contemporary assessments were not kind, and history will be brutal.

But if every speaker has to pass a test for benign mediocrity and politically correct sensitivity, commencement stages will be home to nothing but milquetoasts. You want torture? Try listening to the Stanford speech of 2009, when Justice Anthony M. Kennedy gave an interminable address on the intricacies of international law, under a broiling sun, with almost no mention of the graduates.

Give me a brisk, strong, witty defense of something I disagree with over a tired replay of platitudes. It matters little if the speaker is a convict or a seminarian, a statesman or a comedian.

This season, the left is better than the right at pressure tactics designed to kill opposing views. But who wants to claim that title?

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. recently canceled an address at the graduation ceremony of the Oklahoma City police academy after he was harassed by gun nuts and Republican elected officials — often a redundancy, I realize. Organizers called for officers in attendance to "place Holder in handcuffs." Good lesson for the grads — arrest the nation's highest law enforcement officer because you don't share his politics. One Republican, an Oklahoma state senator, Paul Wesselhoft, cheered the strong-arm tactics. "This is a significant lesson in political activism," he said. No, it's a primer in how to be a bully.

In that sense, the lefty thought police at Smith, Haverford and Rutgers share one thing with the knuckle-dragging hard right in Oklahoma: They're afraid of hearing something that might spoil a view of the world they've already figured out.

© 2014 New York Times

Column: Diversity on campus? Perish the thought 05/16/14 [Last modified: Friday, May 16, 2014 2:29pm]

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