James Finkelstein served as the founding vice dean of the School of Public Policy at George Mason University, in Virginia, where he is now Professor Emeritus of Public Policy.
Less than a day after George Mason University announced Gov. Glenn Younkin as its spring commencement speaker, a graduating senior launched an online petition demanding the administration ensure the official would not speak or attend the ceremony. As of this writing, more than 8,000 individuals have signed the petition.
This should come as no surprise. As longtime New York Times reporter Katharine Seelye wrote in 2018, "Protests at college commencements are almost a rite of spring."
Since 1998, 174 commencement speakers have been subject to disinvitation campaigns, according to the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression's Campus Disinvitation Database. Of these, 60 have been at public colleges and a majority of those were initiated by groups FIRE classified as politically left of the speaker. Only 10 were from the right of the speaker, and eight were not categorized.
One-quarter of the disinvitation campaigns were successful.
Seven of the campaigns resulted in the invited speaker withdrawing, and another seven resulted in the invitation to the speaker being revoked. One instance was classified as "substantial disruption of the event," where hecklers booed the speaker "into silence after her remarks about the September 11th attacks during the commencement speech."
Given the ever-widening political divide, it might be time to rethink the wisdom of having politicians as commencement speakers since this seems to be the group most likely to provoke student protests.
While many elite universities have moved away from inviting politicians and government officials as commencement speakers, individuals from these groups remain the most common choices by far, according to University Business. Its analysis of "a-list speakers” at 70 commencements in 2022 found that 28 institutions chose either a politician or a senior government official. A dozen chose entertainers, and ten chose athletes.
This is not a representative sample, and others may classify the individuals differently. But many institutions still prefer to select current and former politicians and government officials as commencement speakers. Nearly half involved commencement speakers who were politicians or government officials, according to FIRE.
George Mason University often invites current and former politicians as commencement speakers. Governors have been a common choice, no surprise given that Virginia's governor appoints university governing boards.
But in the run-up to what is expected to be a contentious presidential election season, choosing a politician who many think may be a potential candidate is even more fraught with risk.
I graduated from Miami University in 1974 — another era of considerable turmoil and division in the country. Ours was the class to enter college following the Kent State shootings, but the Vietnam War wouldn't formally end for another year. Anti-war protests and vigils were still relatively common on campus.
Someone at my university had the brilliant idea of inviting Art Buchwald, noted political columnist and humorist, to be our commencement speaker. His speech was titled "I'm Not A Crook." The Watergate scandal was in full gear in the months leading up to our June graduation. Several people had already either pled guilty or been convicted of various charges related to the campaign, and another seven aides and advisors had been indicted.
Buchwald joked about current-day public figures during his speech, at one point saying, "Don't get me wrong about Nixon. I worship the quicksand he walks on.”
Knowing that I had many conservative friends, including my roommate of four years, I suspected that they — and their parents — might not see the humor in Buchwald's remarks. That's always the risk with humor, especially political satire. But Buchwald pulled it off.
He closed his commencement speech with these words of wisdom, "Now I could have said something very profound today but you would have forgotten it in 20 minutes. So I chose to give the talk I did so that in 20 years from today when your children ask what you did on graduation day you can proudly say, 'I laughed.'"
So maybe it would have been best if this year's graduates at Mason had been allowed to remember that they laughed at commencement rather than having to organize to protest the views of a politician whom at least half of them don't support.