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.
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 email@example.com.