Opinion | Staff Editorials

Commencement speakers should not distract from graduates

When the speeches end, Frank Sinatra’s iconic “New York, New York” will play, and Barnard’s class of 2014 will finally graduate—off to “make it anywhere.” This is the moment that they will remember from their commencement, for all of the bittersweet emotions that come with it.

Last week, Barnard announced that Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America and the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, would be this year’s commencement speaker. In an email to the class of 2014, Barnard College President Debora Spar and Dean Avis Hinkson wrote, “Richards is a nationally respected leader in the field of women’s health and reproductive rights, and her unwavering dedication in the fight for access and education is a true inspiration.”

There’s no question that Richards is a woman to admire. She is an experienced leader and one of the most influential women in health policy worldwide. Under her watch, Planned Parenthood has drastically expanded all of its services to help millions more. However, in this role, Richards is also an intrinsically divisive figure. Despite the variety of work done by Planned Parenthood, it is often closely associated with abortion. The issue of abortion creates an ideological divide for people across the world, and members of the Barnard community and their families are no exception.

As Kate Christensen, BC ’14, noted in her op-ed (“Barnard commencement speaker alienates many in community,” March 10), Richards is a speaker who will inevitably estrange students who believe abortion to be “morally reprehensible.” It is undeniably true that some students will feel alienated. However, the claim that Richards should not be a speaker because of these students’ reactions exempts them from the responsibility to tolerate an opposing viewpoint. It assumes that Richards will make political and moral claims about abortion—and that even if she does not, student disagreement with her platform renders her unfit as a commencement speaker. 

Richards is not a poor choice because she is potentially alienating. She is a poor choice because the controversy surrounding her as a speaker will be deafening.

We would welcome Richards to speak at the University for any other event. But when the attention surrounding the speaker becomes too great, it will detract from the purpose of the event, and that is something that should not happen at commencement. 

The same held true for President Barack Obama, CC ’83, when he spoke at Barnard’s commencement for the class of 2012. Although he was not considered controversial at Barnard, Obama’s presence alone meant heavy security, fewer tickets for graduates’ families, and even a last-minute change of date for School of General Studies Class Day. The day was no longer about the graduates, but about Obama. 

Similarly, a celebrated public figure such as Oprah Winfrey can draw attention away from the laudable accomplishments of the graduates simply because she is famous—for example, at Harvard, her very presence created a media storm that overshadowed the students commencement is meant to celebrate. While such speakers may make for great publicity and inspiring speeches, their presence risks eclipsing the meaning and purpose of commencement. This is not to say that commencement speakers should not be well-known—in fact, both Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee and acclaimed playwright Terence McNally gave excellent commencement speeches last year at Barnard and Columbia College, respectively. These prominent figures were able to offer sage life advice and create a memorable day for the graduates without taking the spotlight off the class of 2013. But some big names cannot help but redirect attention away from graduates, regardless of the content of their speeches.

Commencement occupies just one day, but it is the moment when the cumulative achievements that seniors have garnered over their four years are recognized. Attention should be directed at the graduates, their families, and their accomplishments—not at who the commencement speaker is.

Justin Bleuel, Nicole Bleuel, and Margaret Mattes dissented from this editorial.

Meet the editorial board »

Correction: A previous version of the article mistakenly referred to Gbowee as the president of Liberia. She is a peace activist from Liberia. Spectator regrets the error.

To respond to this staff editorial, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

Comments

Plain text

  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
Your username will not be displayed if checked
CAPTCHA
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Image CAPTCHA
Enter the characters shown in the image.
Parent posted on

Well said--Thank you for putting the focus where it belongs--the graduates.

+1
+17
-1
Anonymous posted on

I don't understand the idea that Barnard graduates and their families will be "distracted" by a controversial speaker. When the graduates look back on commencement day, will their strongest memory be the controversy surrounding the speaker, or the elation and sadness of hearing their names called and walking across the stage? Will their celebrations with their families that day, and in the days before and after, be diminished by virtue of the fact that the speaker was "controversial"? Will parents at commencement be more focused on their children's success, or on the controversy surrounding the speaker?

The only people for whom this speaker might "overshadow" the graduates are people who don't have a close personal connection to those graduates. And for everyone else, this editorial only exacerbates the "deafening" controversy it so bemoans.

+1
-13
-1
Anonymous posted on

or maybe one of their strongest memories will be how some of their family members refused to attend because of the speaker

+1
+4
-1
Kate Plus 8 posted on

Is that you Kate?

+1
-3
-1
not kate posted on

no, nor do I really know her, but from what I know of her she's a cool gal and doesn't deserve the hate that's been thrown her way for having diversity of opinion. "Kate plus 8"? Really? Grow up.

+1
-1
-1
Kate is Gr8 posted on

Innocent, admittedly unfunny puns are hatred now? What absurdity! Ask ethnic minorities and the LGTBQ community what real hatred is actually like, then get back to me...

+1
-1
-1
not kate posted on

holy sh*t, take a beat. I didn't call your name specifically h8, but I think it certainly flags a certain immaturity of thought and attitude.

+1
-2
-1
Un-Family posted on

I feel bad for those kids whose families put politics over their own child/grandchild/niece. I really do.

+1
+2
-1
BC '14 posted on

It'd be pretty petty for a family member to refuse to see their daughter/niece/whatever graduate from college just because they have ideological differences with the speaker. Plenty of conservative or anti-war family members managed to sit through Obama's speech.

+1
+1
-1
Anonymous posted on

I agree. Commencement day is about the graduates.

+1
+9
-1
WAKE UP, SHE IS EVIL posted on

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vhZHCx0Lw0E&list=PL8EFD92381B996609

PROOF!!!

+1
-6
-1
WOW posted on

Well done--I was familiar with some of this history but not all.

It is a fact that the majority of black pregnancies are terminated in nyc--people need to educate themselves about the foundation of Planned Parenthood--perhaps you need to look beyond their slick marketing--and see their true purpose. PP is not about the health and well being of anyone.

+1
+3
-1
WAKE UP, SHE IS EVIL posted on

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vhZHCx0Lw0E&list=PL8EFD92381B996609

PROOF!!!

+1
-3
-1
Roland posted on

You're right it's about the graduates, not the parents or anyone else. If I had the president I would be fine with it. How often do you have the president speak at your commencement. I would rather him our her speak, then some schmuck I have no idea about.

+1
-3
-1
J Garcia posted on

While POTUS was indeed a notable speaker and probably a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, it was a straight political stop for him during re-election - not to mention his speech was textbook boring. I’d rather hear a memorable speech from some “schmuck” like CC’s 2013 Class Day where the standing ovation was for the speaker AND the speech, not because of the title associated with one’s name.

*just another $0.02 for the jar...*

+1
+2
-1
The Irony posted on

Given Kate's or Spec's standards, the vast majority of the graduating class wouldn't even be allowed to speak at their own damn graduation.

+1
-3
-1
Dissent? posted on

Spec, that's lame of you guys to list those board members that "dissented".

+1
-18
-1
Anonymous posted on

But now we can know who the superior editorial board members are

+1
+2
-1
Anonymous posted on

(Just to be clear, the superior ones are the ones who dissented)

+1
-3
-1
The Diana posted on

The protest op-ed, then this? ugh

+1
0
-1
The Diana posted on

For the record I'm BC 14 and totally fine with to her speaking at my graduation.

+1
-2
-1
eboard fanclub posted on

The protest one was shitty, but I fail to see how this compares. It spells out a logical viewpoint in this debate.

+1
-3
-1
Congratulations Barnard posted on

There's certainly something to be said about Barnard: Controversial or not, you always get great speakers for your commencement ceremonies. I wish you the best, whatever the outcome of this debate.

+1
+3
-1
Anonymous posted on

Oh editorial board, fuck off. Half of you don't give a shit about Barnard and never will.

+1
-5
-1
BC '14 posted on

Wow. I hope one day Spec will look back and realize this editorial is a mistake and embarrassment. Is the biggest and only reason for your position really distraction? Are you serious?

+1
+8
-1
Dr.Alan Simonson posted on

I am sure the graduates at Barnard can tolerate a different opinion
if they disagree.
She is an eloquent speaker & I'm sure she is aware of the opposing
view.
congratulation to all the GRADUATES.

+1
+1
-1
Anonymous posted on

"It is often closely associated with abortion." Duh, it would be a non-entity without abortion.
Somewhere, KKK speaker and eugenics advocate, Margaret Sanger must be smiling now. I hope African-American women take the lead and walk out when drunken Annie's daughter takes the stage.

+1
-1
-1
Anonymous posted on

I am a parent of a Barnard student and I believe that Cecile Richards is a wonderful choice. By your criteria, the only commencement speakers allowed would be bland and mediocre, speakers who have never taken a stand. If an environmentalist had been chosen, he/she would offend the global warming deniers, Obama and Clinton offended the right and outraged the Tea Party, (etc.) Part of Barnard's mission is to end gender inequity. Cecile Richards has devoted her professional life to women's rights.

+1
-3
-1
another barnard parent posted on

Abortion--the taking of innocent human life--is entirely different from global warming. I was there for Obama. who by the way happened to be bland, it was the office of POTUS that garnered respect, not Obama. Basically it was an election PR event. I have no interest how charismatic a speaker Cecile Richards may be--I don't need to be entertained-especially at a graduation. The organization she represents is morally repugnant to many families. I would be happier if Barnard could honor a past graduate who has made a positive contribution to society. CC does this and it is much more personal and relevant to the experience of the graduates.

+1
-5
-1
Anonymous posted on

who cares who goes to Barnard graduations?

This is about as non issue as one can imagine. Most Barnard women would be on the barricades defending their right to sexual self determination.

+1
-4
-1
piya posted on

bonjour frends il ya une belle place pour vous tous qui nous aident à jouer à des jeux gratuits ... nous pouvons jouer n'importe quel jeu à travers ce site ... frends tous peuvent visiter ce site avec une connexion de la côte pour n'importe quel jeu

+1
0
-1
sscnPQbaA posted on

yes using xanax recreational use - xanax 2mg too much

+1
0
-1
WOwsl posted on

buy provigil online provigil no prescription needed - xyrem provigil

+1
0
-1
yWZAH posted on

klonopin for anxiety klonopin overdose much - klonopin side effects and breastfeeding

+1
0
-1
kmNfpKlfJ posted on

tramadol online no prescription buy tramadol online no prescription overnight - tramadol hcl blood pressure

+1
0
-1
zWSstwY posted on

helpful resources diazepam for dogs safe - diazepam 4 sale

+1
0
-1
RwnvuIIY posted on

visit buy tramadol at walmart - tramadol withdrawal help

+1
0
-1
FEblO posted on

Visit http://www.constitutionalist-church.org/valiumonline/#l10tat mylan 345 valium vs xanax - valium 5 mg duration

+1
0
-1
kyDZPsLLc posted on

can you buy valium in uk buy valium online in australia - can you buy valium online no prescription

+1
0
-1
lTUfh posted on

this one tramadol zydol 50mg - non generic tramadol

+1
0
-1