The commencement speaker at Pennsylvania’s Haverford College went off on graduates Sunday for mounting a campaign against the originally scheduled speaker.
William G. Bowen, the former president of Princeton, called student protestors “immature” and arrogant,” according to Philly.com.
Robert Birgeneau, a former chancellor at University of California Berkeley, was supposed to speak at commencement and receive an honorary degree. Birgeneau, a well-known LGBT advocate, presided over UC Berkley in November 2011, when a non-violent Occupy protest was broken up by campus police with brute force.
Students and faculty at Haverford “expressed concern” about Birgeneau’s appearance, according to Haverford President David Weiss. Many of the students had participated in Occupy protests themselves.
"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,'" said Bowen, who received the National Humanities Medal from President Obama last year. "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."
About 50 students and professors sent Birgeneau a letter with nine conditions asking him to accept responsibility for his actions because “President Weiss has told us that you exemplify 'ideals we hold dearly at Haverford.'”
Birgeneau then withdrew from the commencement with a sharply worded email: “First, I have never and will never respond to lists of demands. Second, as a long time civil rights activist and firm supporter of non-violence, I do not respond to untruthful, violent verbal attacks.”
Bowen admitted that Birgeneau’s response was ill-conceived.
"I think that Birgeneau, in turn, responded intemperately, failing to make proper allowance for the immature, and, yes, arrogant inclinations of some protestors," he said. "Aggravated as he had every right to be, I think he should be with us today."
He also reproached graduating senior Michael Rushmore, a student leader who was presumably sitting in the crowd, for calling Birgeneau’s withdrawal “a minor victory.”
"It represents nothing of the kind," Bowen argued. "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."
Haverford isn’t the first school to muscle out a commencement speaker this spring. Rutgers made waves after professors and students protested a commencement speech from former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who later withdrew.
Rutgers then invited, disinvited and re-invited a Rutgers football player, Eric Legrand, who was paralyzed on the field during a 2010 game, to speak. Somewhere in between it also invited former New Jersey governor and former head of the 9/11 Commission Tom Kean – so Rutgers will have two speakers today.
Michelle Obama still spoke at the group commencement for several Topeka, Kan., high schools despite petitions from some students and parents who didn’t want fewer friends and family to be able to attend their graduation just so the first lady could give a speech commemorating the 60th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which outlawed segregation in schools.