Having served as a university president for 13 years, I could only smile when Tampa friends told me about their recent experience attending their daughter’s commencement ceremony at Boston University.
For the most part, graduations across the country are typically solemn and celebratory events where smiles and tears of joy carry the day, not controversy.
However, when BU students turned their backs and shouted at commencement speaker David Zaslav, an entertainment executive, demonstrating their support for striking Hollywood writers, they actually joined a lengthy history of negative reactions from attendees going back decades.
In fact, the Tampa Bay Times, just a few weeks ago, covered an alternative commencement held for New College of Florida graduates, who were voicing their opposition to changes happening at their institution.
In my former home state, George Mason graduates turned away from Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin when he reached the podium only a week ago.
Well, at least the students at BU, GMU and New College will remember their big day, maybe not for the right reasons, which nonetheless is not the norm for many college graduates.
Once over the course of an academic year, I asked colleagues if they recalled the speaker from their ceremony, and the results were not positive for those selected to bring inspiration. Granted this review would not qualify as an actual study, but more than half didn’t have a clue.
Do you remember yours?
The late Fred Rogers left a memorable impression regarding how to handle opposition when he was selected to speak at Old Dominion University some 20 years ago.
After he was announced as the speaker, a couple of students — and I truly mean a couple — got a desperate local TV station to interview them as they expressed disappointment that a children’s show host would be at their event. The campus reaction to them was one of outrage, and their petition drive to rescind his invitation went nowhere.
Still, because he was Fred Rogers, the story was picked up nationally and he actually offered to pull out. After I assured him this was a small group, he said he would honor his commitment, but wanted a room without university personnel present where the students could speak freely with him before the procession.
Despite an invitation to meet with a television icon, not one bothered to show up. Once he walked on stage, Fred Rodgers received a standing ovation and got another one following his talk. I did not see the disgruntled students in the crowd, but I can only imagine they were slumped low in their seats knowing how foolish they looked trying to discredit a good human being for a quick laugh.
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These days, we read story after story about free speech debates and the need for more collegial discourse, so this graduation season, again, reminded me that Mr. Rogers continues to teach us valuable life lessons. And I would bet those in attendance at any of his speeches would easily recall he was their speaker.
In the 100-plus commencements I was a part of, I can recall few instances where speakers were not truly excited to be part of a special moment. I can guarantee no invitee wants to be part of something where they are not welcome. I am certain Mr. Zaslav would have never accepted an invitation to speak to at his alma mater, Boston University, had he known some students would be shouting obscenities at him as he spoke.
BU President Robert Brown was rightfully critical of the student reaction.
“For a university committed to free speech, protests are appropriate and common. The right to protest is essential to sustaining the democracy that we enjoy. The attempt to silence a speaker with obscene shouts is a resort to gain power, and antithetical to the mission and purposes of a university,” Brown said.
I can only imagine that somewhere above us Fred Rogers is shaking his head in disappointment and disgust as our country truly struggles with how to disagree without being disagreeable. It seems to me that many have forgotten how to be a good neighbor.
John R. Broderick is the former president of Old Dominion University. He now lives in Tampa.