National News

Roaring Protests of Commencements Past Make Way for a More Subdued Stand

Posted May 31, 2018 2:16 p.m. EDT

BOSTON — On commencement day at Northern Michigan University, some students protested the speaker, Gov. Rick Snyder, and his handling of the water crisis in Flint. While some students outside the event carried signs against him, students inside the hall simply — and silently — turned their backs on him as he spoke.

Protests at college commencements are almost a rite of spring, and this graduation season is no different. Some of the demonstrations this year have shapeshifted into actions more subdued than those of just a few years ago. Some are small events within larger ceremonies. And silence as a protest tactic is being used to make a point without ruffling too many feathers.

At Northern Michigan, the university’s president, Fritz Erickson, appeared pleased with the outcome. In a statement, he said he appreciated that the governor, a Republican, still came, despite advance word that he would be met by protests. He said he was proud that the students had been respectful.

At Tufts University, about 150 students — of 3,700 graduates — silently protested their speaker, turning their backs on Ellen Kullman, the former chief executive of DuPont. Grim-faced, they also held paper signs that chastised the chemical company’s environmental record, saying it had “dumped carcinogenic chemicals into people’s water supplies repeatedly.”

And at Howard University, the commencement speaker, Chadwick Boseman, star of “Black Panther,” lauded students who had taken over the administration building earlier in the year over grievances. Boseman also praised the administration for its willingness to make changes.

In a moment of heightened political turmoil in the nation at large, including on college campuses, commencement protests seem oddly quieter than in some years past.

One reason, analysts say, may be that colleges are seeking out commencement speakers who bring inspiration — not tumult — and whose ideologies are often more in line with those of their largely liberal student bodies.

“I suspect college administrators are staying away from inviting people who will provoke controversy and spoil the day for parents and many graduates themselves,” said Michael Kazin, a history professor at Georgetown and editor of Dissent, a magazine of the political left.

“In other words,” he said, “a sort of prior restraint or self-policing may be at work here.”

At Berkeley, the commencement speaker, Sen. Kamala Harris, a Democrat, was the one to protest. She backed out of giving the address because she wanted to support unionized campus workers who are on strike over wages and health benefits.

At Harvard, some students wanted to draw attention to sexual violence on the campus, where nearly a third of female seniors surveyed in 2015 reported having some form of nonconsensual sexual contact during their four years there. Organizers printed up stickers that said “#TimesUpHarvard” and asked sympathizers to wear them on their caps at graduation.

To be sure, students are plenty passionate, and say that even if their campuses have not erupted with widespread demonstrations at commencement, they are concerned about certain issues.

“Sexual violence is appalling,” said Amelia Sampat, 26, who graduated this year from the Kennedy School at Harvard and helped organize the “TimesUpHarvard” action.

“Maybe graduation isn’t the best time and place for us to bring this up, but so many students wanted the opportunity to take a stand,” she said. Students snapped up all 2,000 stickers that were printed.

“We wanted the administration to know that students care deeply about this,” she said. “We had a silent action, not a loud protest, because we want to work with the administration in a collaborative way.”

The quieter tone is in striking contrast to that at commencements just a few years ago.

When Condoleezza Rice, the former secretary of state, delivered the commencement address at Boston College in 2006, students turned their backs on her, protesting her role in the war in Iraq. But they also marched outside the event, carrying signs that said “No Blood For Oil” as a small plane buzzed overhead, pulling a banner that declared: “Your War Brings Dishonor.” It was a more tranquil scene at Boston College’s commencement this year, when Wilton D. Gregory, the archbishop of Atlanta and the nation’s highest-ranking black Catholic bishop, gave the address. Students cheered his message on the importance of movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo.

When Rice was invited in 2014 to speak at the Rutgers University commencement, the advance protests grew so sulfurous that she withdrew.

That was the same year that Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, bailed as commencement speaker at Smith College as critics accused the IMF of damaging the economies of developing nations.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a group that says it promotes freedom of speech on college campuses, says it has tracked a drastic drop-off in protests against commencement speakers. The foundation maintains a “disinvitation database” of speakers who have been disinvited from college campuses, including at commencement.

In 2014, protesters demanded that invitations be rescinded for at least 16 commencement speakers, the foundation said. (Some, like Rice and Lagarde, withdrew while others did not.)

By sharp contrast, the foundation said it was aware of very few cases so far this year in which protesters had demanded that an invitation be rescinded. One was to Betsy DeVos, President Donald Trump’s education secretary. Alumni at Ave Maria University in Florida said DeVos did not uphold the Catholic values extolled by the college and that her policies were “callous and unjust towards marginalized persons.”

She spoke anyway and received a standing ovation.

At Spring Hill College in Alabama, many protested the choice of the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest whose critics say he advances a homosexual agenda, as commencement speaker. But the college did not rescind the invitation.

Some students are expressing their concerns outside of commencement time anyway, such as at mass marches against gun violence and on behalf of women. Throughout the year, many have been protesting visiting speakers with whom they disagree.

“The most combative students disgorged their anger during a year of protests against Charles Murray, Ben Shapiro, Milo Yiannopoulos, Ann Coulter, often with unhappy consequences,” said Todd Gitlin, a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University and author of “The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage.”

Now, he said, “while students dislike the Trump ascendancy, many are focused on narrow concerns, or are demoralized, or are looking for year-end occasions to celebrate — not denounce.”