Laslo Boyd: The $35,000 Question

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By: Laslo Boyd 

Commencement speeches, both given and not given, have received a lot of attention this spring.  At Haverford College in Pennsylvania, William Bowen, former president of Princeton, stepped in after protests from some students and faculty led Robert Birgeneau, who had headed the University of California at Berkeley, to withdraw. 

Attendees at the ceremony got more than their money’s worth as Bowen blasted the protesters for their immaturity and arrogance in drawing up an extensive set of demands for Birgeneau.  The list included wanting an apology for how he had handled a student protest about the high cost of college and an essay explaining what he had learned from the experience.  They did not insist that he go to bed without dinner.

Bowen actually volunteered after the protests left Haverford without a commencement speaker and was not paid a fee for his appearance.  He also criticized Birgeneau for not taking the opportunity to speak despite the protests.

This incident, plus a couple of others, has led some commentators to bemoan the liberal biases of the academy and to cite the protests as interference with free speech.  Those comments both miss the point and also greatly exaggerate what has transpired this commencement season.

While it is not uncommon for there to be some protests about commencement speakers, almost all graduation ceremonies go off with relatively little notice. Indeed, as lots of people have noted, commencement speeches are rarely (if ever) remembered beyond that day, and are often not even heard by most of the audience. Once you get past Steve Jobs’ talk at a Stanford graduation, the list of memorable talks gets very short indeed.

In Maryland, as in many states, elected officials are often chosen as commencement speakers, particularly at public universities. Last week, Governor Martin O’Malley spoke to the graduates at University of Maryland College Park. In addition to the usual exhortations about taking control of their future, he had the perspective to cite a game, Commencement Cliché Bingo, and to assert that none of them would be able to complete their cards during his remarks.

The Governor’s wife, Judge Katie O’Malley, gave remarks at the University of Baltimore Law School, while Secretary of Labor (and Marylander) Thomas Perez delivered the commencement address to that university’s other colleges. In an interesting twist, Dr. Patricia Schmoke, wife of the incoming president of UB, Kurt Schmoke, spoke at the Coppin State University graduation.

Four Members of Congress spoke at other Maryland commencements. They were Elijah Cummings (UMUC), Steny Hoyer (also UMUC), John Delaney (Universities at Shady Grove), and Georgia Congressman John Lewis (UMES). Attorney General Eric Holder spoke at Morgan State University’s commencement.

Some universities do not invite outside speakers at all.  At Towson, Frostburg, and Salisbury, students address their classmates and have every bit as good a chance to be memorable as the better-known commencement speakers.

Finally, I want to note two speakers who have more of a national reputation. At Johns Hopkins, Susan Wojcicki, the CEO of YouTube, gave the address, which can undoubtedly be viewed on YouTube. At the University of Maryland Baltimore, Wes Moore, who has gained much attention for his inspiring life story, was the speaker.

There is one other feature I should note that each of these commencement speakers has in common.  None of them were paid to deliver their talks.  I’m sure that a few had their expenses covered and some were awarded an honorary doctorate by the university.  While a few universities do pay a fee or honorarium, the prevailing norm is not to pay commencement speakers.

That brings us to another major controversy of this commencement season. At Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, the scheduled speaker was Condoleezza Rice, former Secretary of State and National Security Advisor under President George W. Bush. As at Haverford, a number of Rutgers students and faculty members protested her selection and received attention in the media for their opposition.

Rice withdrew and was replaced by former New Jersey Governor Tom Kean.  This incident generated a lot of discussion including a widely circulated column by Maureen Dowd of the New York Times.

Some critics argued that Rice was being deprived of her right to speak. Universities, some contended, are open only to liberal points of view and systematically exclude anyone from the political right.

In fact, the protests against Rice had nothing to do with her political ideology and everything to do with her participation at the highest levels in the Bush Administration’s decision to initiate an unnecessary and costly war in Iraq. Rice, perhaps because she is charming, smart, a concert pianist and a highly accomplished scholar, has generally gotten a pass when criticisms of the Iraq War have been leveled against George Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld. 

Unfortunately, the defense offered for her has often been some version of her not being able to stand up to the bullies in the room, Cheney and Rumsfeld. Poor Condi wasn’t tough enough to play with the big boys. Or some equally sexist view.

However, unlike Colin Powell, she has never offered any second thoughts about that war or her role in it. Her place in history is likely to be defined by one of the most manipulative comments of all time, that we had to hope the “smoking gun evidence of Iraq having weapons of mass destruction wouldn’t turn out to be a mushroom shaped cloud.”

Free speech allows individuals to criticize powerful people. In fact, that is exactly why the 1st Amendment is so important. Because of that protection, Rice could have given her commencement address and confronted her critics. What an opportunity, unless she preferred to keep avoiding the subject.

There is one other element of the Rice controversy that has been overlooked in most of the coverage.  Rutgers University, a public institution that relies heavily on state appropriations and student tuition dollars, was prepared to pay Rice $35,000 for her priceless observations.

If the protesters didn’t have enough of a case because of her role in the Iraq War and of their university giving her an honorary degree — a public acknowledgment that she represents the values of the institution — the payment of a $35,000 fee should have sent them to the barricades.

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Laslo Boyd's professional experience includes serving as education advisor to the Governor of Maryland, Acting Secretary of Higher Education, senior administrator in several higher education institutions and university professor.  His work in political campaigns has involved strategic communications, public opinion polling, and development of position papers.  Dr. Boyd has consulted for a wide range of clients in higher education, government, and business.  He has provided political commentary and analysis in both print and electronic media.