Patricia McGuire, the president of Trinity Washington University who once accused those who protested President Barack Obama’s commencement honor at the University of Notre Dame of "religious vigilantism," is now calling at Inside Higher Ed for an end to the “bread-and-circuses spectacle” of celebrity commencement speakers which, she says, “demeans the true purpose of the ceremony.”
Just this year, The Cardinal Newman Society identified at least 20 Catholic colleges and universities that hosted scandalous speakers and honorees at commencement ceremonies.
“Commencement speeches have become all about the speakers (or the withdrawn or disinvited speakers) with hardly a word about the graduates,” writes McGuire in her article.
She points to the commencement speakers such as Christine Lagarde, chief of the International Monetary Fund, who withdrew in the face of protests at Smith College. She also mentions Condoleezza Rice, the former secretary of state, who withdrew from speaking at Rutgers University. McGuire says their withdrawal “says more about the banal state of commencements today than all of the thousands of platitudes uttered by those who actually did speak this year.”
“Today’s ‘controversies’ hardly amount to more than boorish behavior on both sides, with speakers withdrawing in fits of pique after learning of protests by campus constituents wielding the ire of entitlement to have only people with whom they agree speak to them on the big day,” writes McGuire. “Muffling speech is the antithesis of what all that learning should have been about.”
McGuire reminds readers of what she terms “the truly hyperbolic right-wing frenzy over President Obama’s 2011 commencement appearance at the University of Notre Dame, and Secretary of Health and Human Service Kathleen Sebelius’s 2012 appearance at a diploma ceremony at Georgetown.”
She also proposes that the ideal commencement speaker “should know the graduating class, know the college and be able to embed the institution’s values and shared experiences of the students in the remarks -- ideally a faculty member or a local community leader.”
However, McGuire had sharp criticism for those who opposed Notre Dame’s commencement honor for President Obama in 2009, the actual year of the event. She reportedly labeled the opposition an “ugly spectacle” and an “embarrassment to all Catholics.”
Notre Dame’s honor for President Obama was publicly opposed by 83 U.S. bishops due to his support for abortion rights. More than 367,000 signers joined The Cardinal Newman Society’s petition urging Notre Dame to rescind the invitation.
McGuire argues at Inside Higher Ed that the best result of this year’s commencement controversies “might be a serious re-examination of the whole idea of commencement as a venue for commercial entertainment and institutional bragging rights, rather than a modestly festive-but-stately ceremony concluding a period of collegiate study.”
“Colleges and universities reap what they sow when the celebrity of the speaker becomes more important than the purpose of commencement,” she says. “The time has come to restore the idea of the celebration of academic achievement to center stage on graduation day.”
She concludes, “Turning commencement into a sideshow of anger and recrimination is no way to end a student’s academic experience.”
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