Every spring, thousands of American higher learning institutions and tens of thousands of high schools send their graduates off with a commencement ceremony. A centerpiece of the event, as old as American education itself, is the commencement speech. At their best, these speeches furnish students with wise and inspiring advice for the future. The choice of speaker is also part of the message; it signals the sort of person of whom the university, college, or high school approves.
Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York and the tenth richest person in the country, was Harvard University’s choice in 2014. The selection was not entirely disinterested. Bloomberg, a Harvard MBA, is perhaps the largest single educational philanthropist in the country. In the past he had donated $350 million to Harvard (and more than a billion to his undergraduate alma mater, Johns Hopkins). Who knew what flights of largesse might be inspired by an invitation to deliver Harvard’s 63rd commencement speech?
But just being rich isn’t sufficient for a commencement honor by Harvard or other elite, liberal universities. You must also be politically and culturally simpatico. Bloomberg seemed perfect. A political independent, he supported Barack Obama in 2012, as did virtually everyone at Harvard. He is a leader in progressive social issues such as gun control, immigration reform, climate change, abortion rights, and gay marriage.
The Harvard committee that chose Bloomberg had every reason to expect a warm, congratulatory address to the graduates. But commencement had a different meaning for Bloomberg. He took it as an occasion to accuse the nation’s most liberal universities, including his host, of betraying their deepest notional value: tolerance.
“There is an idea floating around college campuses— including here at Harvard—that scholars should be funded only if their work conforms to a particular view of justice,” he said. “There’s a word for that idea: censorship. And it is just a modern-day form of McCarthyism.” Bloomberg cited data from the Federal Election Commission showing that 96 per- cent of Ivy League faculty and administrators who gave money to a presidential candidate in 2012 donated to Barack Obama. “There was more disagreement than that among the members of the old Soviet Politburo,” he said, adding that “a university cannot be great if its faculty is politically homogenous.”
As exhibit A of this campus intolerance, Bloomberg offered the current commencement season. Just a few weeks earlier, Brandeis University had disinvited human rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali from delivering a graduation speech. A Somali Muslim who has lived much of her adult life under death threats because of her critique of Islam’s treatment of women and gays, Hirsi Ali seemed a perfect speaker for the liberal university— until a cadre of Muslim activists and radical faculty denounced her. Instead of supporting Hirsi Ali’s right to speak, the president of Brandeis caved to the pressure and told her she wouldn’t be welcome at commencement due to “certain of her past statements” that were, in his view, inconsistent with the university’s “core values.” He didn’t elaborate on what those values were, but they clearly didn’t include intellectual diversity. Compounding the insult, he had the audacity to invite Hirsi Ali to visit the school someday for a discussion “in the spirit of free expression that has defined Brandeis University through its history.” Presumably, such a discussion would be vetted first by the Muslim students and radical professors whose protests had made Hirsi Ali persona non grata.
Former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice was invited to give the commencement speech at Rutgers University that spring. Rice, like Hirsi Ali, is a distinguished woman of color who overcame childhood discrimination and bigotry to rise to international prominence.