Yesterday it was reported that former Princeton president William Bowen called graduating Haverford College students “immature” and “arrogant” for having forced Robert Birgeneau, the former chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, to withdraw from appearing at Haverford’s commencement.
Some Haverford students had argued Birgeneau’s presence would have constituted an endorsement of his handling of a 2011 “Occupy” protest, which saw riot police descend on parts of Berkeley.
This is part of a larger trend in 2014, where college commencement speakers are being protested and prevented from speaking: IMF leader Christine Lagarde, for example, withdrew from speaking at Smith over student protests. And Rutgers students caused Condoleezza Rice to withdraw.
Bowen was already scheduled to speak at Haverford. After Birgeneau decided not to attend, Bowen asked if he could have additional time.
He begins by saying he would defend students’ right to protest to the end, but that a liberal arts college like Haverford should be focused on encouraging debate, not shutting it down. The Haverford protest, he said, was “troubling” and “sad”:
…it is a serious mistake for a leader of the protest against Birgeneau’s proposed honorary degree to claim that Birgeneau’s decision not to come represents a “small victory.” It represents nothing of the kind. In keeping with the views of many others in higher education, I regard this outcome as a defeat, pure and simple, for Haverford — no victory for anyone who believes, as I think most of us do, in both openness to many points of view and mutual respect.
And here’s the “arrogance” part:
I am disappointed that those who wanted to criticise Birgeneau’s handling of events at Berkeley chose to send him such an intemperate list of “demands.” In my view, they should have encouraged him to come and engage in a genuine discussion, not to come, tail between his legs, to respond to an indictment that a self-chosen jury had reached without hearing counter-arguments. I think that Birgeneau, in turn, failed to make proper allowance for the immature, and, yes, arrogant inclinations of some protestors. Aggravated as he had every right to be, I think he should be with us today.
Here’s the full thing. Bowen had spoken earlier in the day:
ENDURING VALUES: OPENNESS AND MUTUAL RESPECT” Remarks at Haverford Commencement
William G. Bowen, May 18, 2014
Here I am again — taking advantage of the privilege of being given at this commencement a “second bite at the apple,” in the wake of the troubling, sad situation created by the conflict between Haverford protestors and Chancellor Birgeneau. I was presumptuous enough to volunteer to speak on this subject, as an outsider, and President Weiss was kind enough — brave enough, not knowing what I would say! — to allow me to offer a personal homily on the enduring values of openness and mutual respect.
Let me be clear at the outset that I am not judging the controversy over Bob Birgeneau’s handling of unrest at Berkeley. I have neither the facts nor the inclination to do so. I would suggest only that people interested in the cross pressures on a chancellor at Berkeley seeking to respond to extraordinarily difficult, testy demands should consult the brilliant memoir of a Quaker-inspired person, Clark Kerr, which recounts the choices he made (with mixed results, as he was the first to insist) in the mid 1960s.
Second, I want to suggest, with all due respect for the venerable right to protest — which I would defend to the end — that it is a serious mistake for a leader of the protest against Birgeneau’s proposed honorary degree to claim that Birgeneau’s decision not to come represents a “small victory.” It represents nothing of the kind. In keeping with the views of many others in higher education, I regard this outcome as a defeat, pure and simple, for Haverford — no victory for anyone who believes, as I think most of us do, in both openness to many points of view and mutual respect.
I am reminded of the experience of Richard Lyman, another graduate of a Quaker- inspired college located somewhere in this vicinity, who was president of Stanford at a time when he felt obligated to call in the police. Conservative alumni, who had been sharp critics of Lyman’s liberal tendencies, applauded his action. But Lyman was having none of it. He replied that any time police had to be involved, as he resolutely believed was necessary in the situation he confronted, it was a defeat for the university, not a victory for anyone. There are no winners in such situations — or in overly contentious replays of them.
In this instance, I am disappointed that those who wanted to criticise Birgeneau’s handling of events at Berkeley chose to send him such an intemperate list of “demands.” In my view, they should have encouraged him to come and engage in a genuine discussion, not to come, tail between his legs, to respond to an indictment that a self-chosen jury had reached without hearing counter-arguments. I think that Birgeneau, in turn, failed to make proper allowance for the immature, and, yes, arrogant inclinations of some protestors. Aggravated as he had every right to be, I think he should be with us today.
The better course of action is illustrated, I think, by two other situations regarding honorary degrees, one of which I participated in as president of Princeton in the 1970s and one of which took place more recently at Notre Dame.
As president of Princeton, I presided over a commencement at which George Shultz, then a member of Nixon’s cabinet in Vietnam days in the 1970s, was awarded an honorary degree for a lifetime of service as the quintessential public servant — and for having demonstrated, over and over again, impeccable integrity, as for instance when he told a congressional committee investigating the Iran-contra affair that the day he had to take a lie detector test to convince people that he was speaking the truth as he understood it was the day he would leave government. The Congressmen backed down, and Shultz then proceeded to answer all questions asked of him, personally and with no lawyer by his side to protect him; he didn’t feel he needed any such “protection.”
Still, and not surprisingly, many people, and many students especially, objected to the awarding of an honorary degree to Shultz — even as the University took pains to explain that conferring an honorary degree did not imply agreement by the University, or any component of it, with all of the views and actions of the recipient. That standard would effectively preclude, de facto, recognising any person active in public life. But the protestors were respectful (mostly), and chose to express their displeasure, by simply standing and turning their backs when the Secretary was recognised. Secretary Shultz, in turn, understood that the protestors had every right to express their opinion in a non-disruptive fashion, and he displayed the courage to come and accept his degree, knowing that many of the faculty and staff (a strong majority, I would guess, this person included) thought that the Nixon conduct of the Vietnam War was a tragic mistake. Princeton emerged from this mini-controversy more committed than ever to honouring both the right to protest in proper ways and the accomplishments of someone with whose views on some issues many disagreed.
My second example is the handling by Notre Dame of the invitation to President Barack Obama to come to campus, speak, and receive an honorary degree. Not surprisingly, many loyal Notre Dame adherents objected vigorously, on the simple ground that Obama’s views on issues such as abortion were at odds with the teachings of the Catholic Church. The hero of this dispute was Father Ted Hesburgh, the legendary president of Notre Dame who had long since retired. Speaking in defence of the invitation to President Obama, Father Hesburgh said that Notre Dame was both a “lighthouse,” where the beliefs of the Church could be promulgated without qualification, and a “crossroads” where people of every faith and every belief could come to discuss controversial issues and learn from each other. Obama came and spoke at a university with very different traditions than this one, but that also deservedly takes pride in being a “crossroads” as well as a “lighthouse.”
My thanks for allowing me to express these personal thoughts. I am, as you may have deduced, neither as graceful nor as forgiving as President Weiss, who recognises so well that students, along with all the rest of us, make mistakes and need to learn from them. There are indeed days when we all need to eat humble pie. This is but one reason, among others, why we should be grateful that Dan Weiss is President of Haverford today. It is my hope that this regrettable set of events will prove, under President Weiss’ leadership, to be a true “learning moment,” and that Haverford will go forward, as I am confident that it will, as a great liberal arts college committed, as always, to both the principle of non-violent protest and to the enduring values of openness and respect for diverse views. Thank you, once again.
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