Diana Sheets: Invited, Disinvited, or Disingenuous?

Jun 2, 2014 by

An Interview with Diana Sheets: Invited, Disinvited, or Disingenuous?

Michael F. Shaughnessy

1) Diana, you have recently published a piece regarding the issue of who should speak at a college or university graduation. Give us some background.

We’re in the midst of graduation season. This year the selection of commencement speakers at colleges and universities has become explosively entangled in the Culture Wars. At least four prominent individuals who were seen as conservative or potentially oppositional to progressive values were either “disinvited” or forced to decline invitations at commencements because of threats of disruptive protests. Colleges and universities, which were once staunch defenders of intellectual liberty, increasingly have become bastions of political repression when the views expressed conflict with the progressive agenda. Anyone who believes in the importance of academic freedom and free speech-not to mention the importance of exposing students to what might be termed “intellectual diversity”-should be very concerned about the growing censorship on campuses of individuals whose views do not correspond with those of progressives.

My recent “Huffington Post” opinion essay “Commencement Speakers, Academic Freedom and the Pursuit of Excellence” discusses the ramifications of a society in which students never grow up (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-diana-e-sheets/commencement-speakers_b_5345490.html). That is, they embrace the notion that they must never encounter, let alone come to terms with, ideas that are oppositional to theirs. The consequences for a democratic society are staggering since without the freedom to express intellectual and political differences, we will live in a state of tyranny.

Nor am I alone in my convictions. The National Association of Scholars “retweeted” to 1145 of its followers my “tweet” with the associated hyperlink, which notified readers of my recent opinion blog on “Huffington Post”.

What exactly transpired? Ayaan Hirsi Ali was invited as a commencement speaker to Brandeis University where she was expected to receive an honorary degree. Ali has advocated tirelessly for the rights of women in Islamic communities. She has opposed the repressive policies of Islamic societies and in particular the practices of female genital mutilation and honor killings. Ali has received numerous death threats because of her criticism of Islamic social and religious practices.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations succeeded in exerting pressure on Frederick M. Lawrence, the president of Brandeis University, to withdraw the invitation and offer of an honorary degree to Ali. In this instance academic freedom caved to identity politics. Brandeis attempted to justify its volte-face by stating the following: “We cannot overlook that certain of her past statements are inconsistent with Brandeis University’s core values” (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/09/us/brandeis-cancels-plan-to-give-honorary-degree-to-ayaan-hirsi-ali-a-critic-of-islam.html?_r=0). Nevertheless, it’s impossible to imagine that the university was unaware of Ali’s statements or positions when she was invited since her views were and are prominently displayed on the Internet.

Next, let’s consider the case of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who served in the Republican administration of President George W. Bush. She agreed to give the commencement address at Rutgers University, but subsequently turned the offer down after sustained protests by both students and faculty. Then, International Monetary Fund (I.M.F.) Managing Director Christine Lagarde accepted and subsequently declined an offer to give a commencement address at Smith College because of disruptive protests by political activists who viewed the lending policies of the I.M.F. as repressive to developing nations.

Finally, Robert J. Birgeneau, who served as chancellor at the University of California campus in Berkeley for ten years, planned to receive an honorary degree and speak at Haverford College’s commencement. He withdrew because of demands by some students and a few faculty that he make amends for actions taken by campus security to end the “Occupy Cal” demonstrations at Berkeley during his tenure in office.

All four invited speakers were seen as behaving in a manner antithetical to progressive principles. They were perceived as conservative or responsible for authoritarian measures that imposed harm or threatened individuals who were perceived as powerless or vulnerable. The actions taken by students and some faculty were both punitive and repressive. Their purpose was to foster a progressive agenda even if it impinged on free speech and academic freedom. The outcome resulted in political and intellectual tyranny, dictating ultimately who should be allowed to speak and receive honors at commencement events and, by implication, even stipulating what was acceptable content. These actions by some students and a few faculty are a bellwether of the politics of academic repression currently practiced today at most of our colleges and universities.

2) Now, typically, there is a committee that chooses the graduation speaker. What do the members need to know nowadays?

Let’s continue our focus on academic freedom since it’s generally of much greater importance than who speaks at commencement and how that selection is determined.

Rejecting speakers whose views do not conform to progressive principles must be viewed as an act of political tyranny. This tyranny is part of a larger phenomenon on campuses today in which individuals whose ideas and writings conflict with progressive beliefs face discrimination in hiring and promotion. Their papers-if expressly diverging from progressive content-are far less likely to be published. Academic colleagues and professional networks essential to advancing their careers are severely circumscribed because of the dearth of conservatives and independents at most colleges and universities. Faculty who are conservatives and independents-except in a few professional disciplines such as business-have become intellectual pariahs on campuses. Their fate is peremptorily determined by the progressive academics and students that abound at the “elite” colleges and universities and who increasingly insist on silencing divergent points of view.

The result? Academic freedom on campuses has all but died, and not just at commencement ceremonies.

What makes these four commencement cases even more remarkable is that only a relatively few students supported by a smattering of faculty managed to sabotage free speech. The progressive agenda overrode the interests of the entire community. Let me be clear: There can be no academic freedom where progressive tyranny reigns.

What may we conclude? Presidents and chancellors at universities these days behave in a cowardly manner. They refuse to override the views of some vocal dissidents for fear of getting fired. The lesson learned in the aftermath of campus demonstrations in the late 1960s at campuses such as Columbia University is that college administrators generally give way to the radical views of a relatively few students instead of standing their ground. Why? Because to act in the interests of the many against the dissident few appears hegemonic. Power that emanates from authoritative leadership, according to the progressive worldview, is always bad.

The result is that campuses have become places where small groups of students and faculty are essentially having political temper tantrums and are never told, “Grow up”. They’re never told, “We live in a world in which other people’s views do not necessarily resemble yours”. They’re never told, “Don’t you realize that as adults you must listen to perspectives that differ from your own?”

I want to state what should be perfectly obvious: Sabotaging the choice of commencement speakers is largely a phenomenon occurring at “progressive campuses”. Students and faculty at the relatively few conservative campuses in the United States are much more likely to respect the decision of a commencement committee even if individuals have concerns about the speakers selected. Students at conservative campuses generally understand the concept of authority and the need to achieve a consensus that extends beyond “the dissident politics of the few”.

3) In your mind, what type of speech SHOULD a college graduate receive? Doom and gloom? Inspirational? Short and sweet? Or intellectually challenging?

Well, let’s continue on this particular topic as it relates to events this year since I believe the principles underlying academic freedom are far more important than any pithy advice I might impart about the choice of subject matter at commencement events.

Robert J. Birgeneau declined the invitation to speak at Haverford’s commencement rather than meet the demands imposed by some students and a few faculty. The result was that William G. Bowen, former president at Princeton University who was already slated to speak at commencement, was given additional time to address the incident. Bowen criticized the imposition of unreasonable demands by the progressive activists while affirming “the venerable right to protest”. He characterized their actions as “immature” and “arrogant”.

Bowen then singled out a ringleader to whom he offered sage advice: “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” (http://www.businessinsider.com/william-bowen-full-text-2014-5).

To the credit of those attending the commencement at Haverford College, Bowen was given a standing ovation (http://www.politico.com/story/2014/05/graduation-speaker-haverford-college-william-bowen-106808.html).

Nevertheless, my question is the following: Why did the president of Haverford College, Daniel H. Weiss, permit some forty students and three faculty members to issue these demands in the first place? How did this rump group on campus become the supreme arbiter of both the content and the terms of who might speak at commencement? What gave these individuals the right to sabotage the principles of academic freedom and intellectual diversity?

Indeed, why were the presidents of all four institutions in which academic freedom was subverted-Brandeis University, Rutgers University, Smith College, and Haverford College-held captive by protesters who represented relatively small factions at the expense of the entire community? Yes, President Robert L. Barchi at Rutgers University came out in support of Condoleezza Rice. Nevertheless, Rice was ultimately forced because of disruptive protests to decline the invitation. Thus, the outcome at Rutgers was ultimately no different than the circumstances at Brandeis, Smith, and Haverford. In each instance the principles of a democratic society were sabotaged by the protests of a few.

How, then, do the presidents of these institutions reconcile their roles as guardians of institutions of higher learning with their failure to protect academic freedom from progressive tyranny?

What is remarkably evident is the extent to which intolerant progressive politics is driving a monolithic culture at colleges and universities, one that is deeply hostile to democratic principles of free speech. That’s why the honorary degree was denied to Ayaan Hirsi Ali at Brandeis. That’s why Condoleezza Rice, Christine Lagarde, and Robert J. Birgeneau ultimately declined to speak at commencements. In all cases free speech was silenced due to a relatively few individuals who exerted a stranglehold upon academic freedom. Let me make this clear: NO ONE INTERVENED TO ENSURE THAT FREE SPEECH AND INTELLECTUAL DIVERSITY PREVAILED.

Apparently, the presidents at all four institutions were more interested in keeping their cushy jobs than in preserving academic freedom.

4) Let’s face it-for some students who are graduating-they have been through four or five or maybe even six years of courses, tuition, tests, term papers etc. Should they be congratulated on their accomplishments? Or hear something about global warming, environmental issues, or cultural issues–such as sensitivity?

Certainly, they should be congratulated. But the highest compliment of all is having a commencement speaker who treats graduates as adults and challenges them to think beyond their momentary but commendable triumph toward the adult challenges they face. However, complex issues that are reduced to political slogans such as “global warming” and “social justice” for political expediency while ignoring the complexities of the underlying problems are destined to fail. Seeking remedies to these challenges requires hard-nosed engineering, mathematics, and scientific knowhow, not to mention businesses acumen. Don’t expect these solutions to come from humanities departments that lack not only the technical wherewithal to solve the challenges that face us but also have succeeded in annihilating the intellectual foundations of their academic disciplines in favor of short-sighted progressive politics. Rest assured the humanities departments will not enable us to achieve either a reduced carbon footprint or the prospect of sustained economic growth, the latter of which offers the best means of fostering social mobility.

5) A major university has funds to bring in either Rush Limbaugh or George Soros. Whom should they choose?

Neither. Create a list of our most gifted intellectuals, scientists, technology gurus, and military heroes. Ask yourself what are the biggest challenges facing us today? Who are our leaders that can solve our problems and inspire us to greatness? Those are the people you want to speak at commencement ceremonies.

6) The same university has the choice between a rabbi or one of those T.V. evangelists. What issues might the school face in selecting its commencement speaker?

What would be the criterion for selecting the best speaker regardless of faith? Perhaps the ability to impart universal values that give rise to hopes and dreams for a better future. A committee might consider the accomplishments and inspirational character of its candidates. The person chosen ideally might impart a life-altering experience-whether heroic or charitable-that transforms a social landscape. Life may be difficult, but we yearn for the possibility of transcendence.

7) Condolezza Rice was invited to speak at Rutgers. Then, due to sustained protests, she subsequently declined to attend. Are there not contracts to protect speakers from these mishaps?

I’m not aware of any contracts to quell disruptive student protests that threaten academic freedom and free speech.

It’s important to understand that these controversies over commencement speakers are indicative of an increasingly hostile political climate for conservatives and independents in our country. Already in education it’s become very difficult to teach the foundations of Western civilization. Instead, the teachers and the students embrace political values that are antagonistic to critical thinking and academic excellence (http://www.literarygulag.com/blog/show/84).

Conservatives today working in elite academic institutions are an anomaly. In humanities departments, it’s almost impossible to get hired, let alone obtain tenure, if your politics and your worldview don’t conform to the progressive norm. Focusing on subjects such as the Western canon dead-ends your career. These trends are having a devastating impact on our educational institutions.

I’m concerned that those who practice broadly conservative principles today are subject increasingly to the new millennium equivalent of McCarthyism only now, of course, the agent of power is left, not right. I ask myself the following question: Has a tipping point been reached when progressives will root out conservatives from all our governing institutions? What will the consequences be? How will this impact America’s ability to be economically productive while advocating democracy at home and abroad?

8) Does the typical college graduate, in your opinion, want a pep rally type of speech, or some sincere advice-like save money for retirement?

I think they need to know that the world is a dangerous place. Surviving, if not thriving, requires stubborn tenacity and ferocious courage. My hope is that they’re searching for inspiration even if they’re making pragmatic choices in terms of their careers.

But beyond those prosaic concerns, I’m worried about today’s undergraduates. They’re incurring greater and greater debt. Their economic opportunities are generally more limited than those of their parents and grandparents. I’m concerned that because of reading, writing, scientific, and mathematical deficits students today are vulnerable to economic instabilities. The job market is tough. Developing a career these days is challenging to say the least. Let’s hope our graduates are resilient since we live in an increasingly turbulent world.

Recently, students have been calling for “trigger warnings” on literary fiction (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/18/us/warning-the-literary-canon-could-make-students-squirm.html?_r=0). My concern is that if students are so oversensitive and so overprotected that they require “warning labels” every time they read a literary novel that violates their progressive worldview, how will they survive in the increasingly cutthroat job market?

9) Often we hear about some rap singer or hip hop artists speaking at an academic commencement. Is this appropriate in your mind? A good use of time and money?

In a word: NO!

10) There seems to be some real concern about “political correctness” nowadays. Does the college or university have to “play it safe” or get some major intellectual like Noam Chomsky to speak and educate the crowd

They’re already playing it safe. And at what cost? Look at the four individuals we’ve discussed and the outcomes they faced. “Playing it safe” today means having a celebrity or someone who advocates social justice, which also applies to Noam Chomsky, by the way. But a commencement speaker who places intellectual demands upon the audience absent any of the sentiments associated with the progressive worldview will have a hard time garnering the enthusiasm of academics and students alike.

11) What have I neglected to ask?

Readers who are interested can check out information about my novels and my essays available on my website, Literary Gulag (http://www.literarygulag.com/). Some of the essays I’ve written are also posted on the University of Illinois open-access Ideals website (https://www.ideals.illinois.edu/handle/2142/3459).

I encourage readers to check out my blog at the “Huffington Post” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-diana-e-sheets/).

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