RECAP: The Wild & Wacky Weekend In College Commencement Controversies

by Jennifer Kabbany - Fix Editor on May 18, 2014

One commencement speaker called the students before him “immature” and “arrogant.”

Another invoked “The Vagina Monologues” among the grads’ crowning college achievements.

A third thought it was a good idea to joke about Donald Sterling in his speech.

A fourth grad speaker, who heads the Anti-Defamation League and is a Holocaust survivor, was actually labeled a “genocide denier” by protesters.

And just when you thought this grad season’s body count on commencement speakers might end at about a half-dozen, another pick faces the chopping block because some students don’t like his politics.

Welcome to the wild and wacky weekend in commencement controversies; never a dull moment.

We begin at Haverford College, where the keynote speaker at Sunday’s ceremony chided the grads for prompting a former a UC Berkeley chancellor to disinvite himself as commencement speaker after the students complained he allowed police brutality to take place one time at Cal back in 2011.

The students had written a demand letter saying they wanted Dr. Robert Birgeneau to apologize for the incident, support reparations for the victims, admit police used unjustifiable excessive force, and write an open letter explaining what he learned from the situation. In response, Birgeneau told the students and handful of professors behind the demands to pound sand.

Birgeneau’s replacement, former Princeton President William Bowen, “called the student protestors’ approach both ‘immature’ and ‘arrogant’ and the subsequent withdrawal of … Birgeneau … a ‘defeat’ for the Quaker college and its ideals,” Philly.com reports.

“I am disappointed that those who wanted to criticize Birgeneau’s handling of events at Berkeley chose to send him such an intemperate list of ‘demands,’ ” Bowen told the grads. “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.”

Bowen got a standing ovation, by the way.

Moving right along, we head north to New York City, where Planned Parenthood Federation of America President Cecile Richards’ commencement address to Barnard College grads cited their production of “The Vagina Monologues” as one of their most noteworthy achievements.

“In your four years at Barnard, you’ve produced ‘The Vagina Monologues,’ you’ve worked on mayoral and presidential campaigns, you’ve tutored kids in the neighborhood, you’ve taken back the night, and today you are getting ready to leave all of that behind you and become a fully functioning adult in your career,” Richards gushed, reports the Columbia Spectator.

Leave it to the head of the largest abortion provider in America to cite that as something to praise. But we should add white students in the audience might have been slighted by Richards’ microaggression.

You see, this year, Barnard College’s production of “The Vagina Monologues” banned white vaginas from starring in the production, which caused a bit of a stir. But enough of that messy business.

On to Secretary of State John Kerry at Yale University. Good Lord, can this guy NOT put his foot in his mouth every time he speaks in public?

Reports ABC News: “Kerry also took a playful poke at the NBA’s controversy surrounding Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, telling the graduates, ‘You are … the most diverse class in Yale history. Or, as it’s called in the NBA, Donald Sterling’s worst nightmare.’ The comment drew laughs from the audience.”

Really, that’s funny? Note how the reporter had to mention people actually laughed at that. There are far better ways to praise the graduating class’ diversity. As Secretary of State, you’d think Kerry would have more class.

And there was a bit of an international crisis over in Kerry’s home state of Massachusetts, where protestors tried to derail a grad speech by Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League and a Holocaust survivor, by accusing him of being something he is not.

“While the Law School of Suffolk University in Boston intended to honor the soon-to-retire Foxman by naming him as the speaker for the commencement … the Armenian Bar Association flipped the script by publicly urging the university to disinvite the ‘genocide denier,’ ” the Jerusalem Post reports. “It is likely that the Armenian National Committee of Eastern Massachusetts will stage a student protest on commencement day to go along with a spitefully worded online petition to remove him from the event.”

Whether that protest manifested itself Saturday is unclear, Boston.com reports.

And while Foxman avoided a rescinded invite, it remains to be seen what will happen over at Harvard.

“Dozens of student and alumni at the Harvard Graduate School of Education issued a statement protesting the selection of Colorado state Sen. Michael Johnston (D) as the school’s 2014 commencement speaker because, they say, he ‘embraces a vision of education reform that relies heavily on test-based accountability while weakening the due process protections of teachers,’” The Washington Post reports, adding the protesters want his invitation rescinded.

That’s all they’ve got?! He supports test-based accountability?! I smell a teachers union behind this. Either that, or the best and brightest over at Harvard aren’t so much anymore.

But perhaps Johnston will join the long, growing – and frankly, quite distinguished – list of recent commencement speaker causalities, among them: former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, women’s rights advocate Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Christine Lagarde, Director of the International Monetary Fund.

Jennifer Kabbany is associate editor of The College Fix ( @JenniferKabbany )

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