TIME

The Problem With Graduation Speaker Purity Tests

The protests forcing some commencement speakers to withdraw are a reminder that students are better at challenging values than maintaining them

These are salad days for organizers of petition drives. Never has it been so easy to circulate demands and collect virtual signatures. Not long ago, ardent activists clutched clipboards outside grocery stores or student unions as apathetic passers-by pretended not to notice them. But social media streamlines the search for the like-minded—a fact the White House discovered recently when more than 270,000 people joined a demand that misbehaving pop star Justin Bieber be deported to his native Canada.

It follows that these are glum times for college presidents. Zealous students at such institutions as Brandeis University, Smith College and Rutgers University have leveraged social media to drive away invited graduation–day speakers. They make it look so easy that students elsewhere will surely be tempted to join in the fun.

So far, the young thought police have used their powers to enforce left-wing purity, amid signs that today’s students have moved beyond identity politics to new orthodoxies. Trustees at Smith, an all–women’s college, probably thought they would be inspiring their students by inviting Christine Lagarde of France, the first woman to head the International Monetary Fund. Hardly. Lagarde bowed out on May 12 after a barrage of complaints about the IMF’s “imperialistic” lending policies (as one petition signer put it).

Earlier this spring, Brandeis rescinded an offer of an honorary degree to the provocative writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whose criticism of Islam for antifeminist tendencies was dubbed “hate speech” by petitioners. Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice backed out of the Rutgers commencement ceremony after students denounced her as a “war criminal” for her role in the Bush Administration’s war on terror.

At Haverford College, students demanded an abject apology before an honorary degree could be granted to Robert Birgeneau, the recently retired chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, and a champion of access to higher education for undocumented immigrants. Birgeneau’s offense was that he presided over Berkeley in 2011, when campus police used rough tactics with students who were protesting state budget cuts. Rather than grovel, Birgeneau withdrew.

Fish swim, birds fly, students protest. Anyone who has been 20 years old surely recalls the fierce clarity of a college student’s mind. The sharp steel of a whetted education, undulled by the nicks and scrapes of experience, makes for the sort of slashing brilliance that breeds innovators and -artists—and revolutionaries. But they are better at challenging values than maintaining them.

As Smith’s president, Kathleen McCartney, put in when announcing Lagarde’s withdrawal, the protesters got what they wanted, “but at what cost to Smith College?”

If America’s treasured institutions of higher learning are to remain bastions of free speech and arenas of robust debate, there must be grownups ready to defend those ideals. And those grownups had better brace themselves for their own online denunciations, because the times, they are a-changin’.

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