Service of Speaking Your Mind

June 2nd, 2014

Categories: Speaking, Speaking Up, University

speak up 2

Saying what’s on your mind rarely makes you the most popular person. I admire those who do, especially when they chose a venue where their words will be heard and an audience that’s the target of their criticism.

When former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg received an honorary degree from the Harvard Law School on May 29, part of his address covered the topic of freedom of expression. The New York Post shared an excerpt on PostOpinion: “Killing the Campuses–The Intolerance Menace.”

free speechThe heart of this part of Bloomberg’s message: “The role of universities is not to promote an ideology. It is to provide scholars and students with a neutral forum for researching and debating issues–without tipping the scales in one direction or repressing unpopular views.”

He continued by listing the college commencement speakers who either pulled out or whose invitations were withdrawn because of student protests joined by senior faculty and administrators. The pressure by the latter groups shocked him more as they “should know better.” The colleges he listed: Brandeis, Haverford, Rutgers, Smith this year and last year, Swarthmore and Johns Hopkins. He also referenced an incident last fall that was unrelated to commencement time when his police commissioner was shut down by students at another Ivy League institution. [It was Ray Kelly at Brown.]

censorship2Bloomberg said: “In each case, liberals silenced a voice–and denied an honorary degree–to individuals they deemed politically objectionable. That is an outrage and we must not let it continue.” He said that when this happens “censorship and conformity, the mortal enemies of freedom win out.”

In “Two Cheers for Bloomberg A liberal politician denounces leftist ‘McCarthyism'”

James Taranto in The Wall Street Journal applauded a different part of Bloomberg’s address where he said: “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. There’s a word for that idea: censorship. And it is just a modern-day form of McCarthyism.”

Even though his words won’t affect his livelihood, his future or that of his family, [unless he’s again running for office, this time on a conservative ticket], Bloomberg didn’t have to do this. Do you agree with his positions?


Commencement at Harvard Law School

Commencement at Harvard Law School



Tags: , ,

19 Responses to “Service of Speaking Your Mind”

  1. EAM Said:

    Yes, at my sister’s alma mater, Smith College, they caved to pressure and decided to rescind the invitation to Christine Lagarde, chief of the International Monetary Fund. The College received protests against her and the Fund. My sister told me that she thought it was a shame. Students who are embarking on shaping their own success should be exposed to different points of view, not just ONE.

  2. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Pretty soon the only people safe to invite to speak will be fictional characters or maybe nobody will be invited in future.

    The decision to listen only to student protestors, faculty and administrators must have a financial string. I don’t think that everyone has been thrilled with every person chosen to speak at each university commencement or other venue and yet speak they did. Sad state of affairs.

  3. Martha Takayama Said:

    I am uncertain about my own reactions to Mr.Bloomberg’s thoughts. I do find the censorship of thinking on campus troubling.

    On the other hand it is rather superficial to ignore that many universities including Harvard have religious roots in their origins, foundation, backgrounds, and missions.

    Is it really logical or realistic to demand that private institutions of higher learning not indicate any sort of preferences or points of view in their academic, social political and philosophical stances. Are they mandated to serve and acquiesce to all interests of all people?
    Aren’t there reasons for electing to study at one school versus another (aside from the issue of being accepted for study) for what they offer?

    I am bewildered as to whether Mr. Bloomberg is only fearful of tyranny by liberals. Are we hearing the same concerns about tea party thinkers steering universities or schools which do not permit discussion of Darwinism or issues regarding birth control? All this musing combined leads me to not truly being in agreement with Mr. Bloomberg’s statement.

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:


    As always a thoughtful response. But do you assume that the person in charge of the commencement program who invited Christine Lagarde, Condoleezza Rice, Ayaan Hirsi Ali or Robert Birgeneau threw a dart at a board and pickedup the phone without consulting another soul at each institution? Doubt that. Where were the backers for those speakers? Have they no spine? What are they afraid of? Didn’t they think through their invitations?

    Doesn’t especially a public institution such as Rutgers supported by the tax dollars of NJ citizens owe its students a chance to hear all points of view?

    What about Bloomberg’s special objection to senior faculty and administrators chiming in? Does the tail wag the dog?

    I am always pleased to find common ground when otherwise I don’t agree with a person. If I don’t give that person a chance to speak, but do the equivalent of blocking my ears and making a loud noise as a child does when he/she doesn’t want to hear, how will I know or more important understand another person’s point of view? I don’t have to agree, but at least can see why they think as they do.

    None of the rejected speakers have anything but goodwill for the students they would be addressing. All are successful and might have useful tips on how to translate their vision into a career.

    If Bloomberg reached a few of the students who gave the topic consideration, that would be good. More important, they saw a man who took a stand that might not be popular and yet he wasn’t afraid to give it voice. That was the takeaway.

  5. Lucrezia Said:

    Yes, 100%. His comments on the subject need no further embellishment. What now stands as more interesting, are the reactions, if any, from the high and mighty Ivies and fellow schools.

  6. Jeanne Byington Said:


    We’ll keep our eyes peeled.

    Other than wanting to race out of the limelight asap related to any controversy whatsoever, I don’t know what these institutions were thinking when they gave in and we may never know. Now that prestigious schools have set a precedent, I assume such protests will be the rule from now on.

    One solution would be to invite the heads of all campus groups to suggest a speaker with the understanding that the one selected must go unchallenged. The board to make the final decision would have to spread the wealth among the groups year to year but it might help turn the tide on this trend.

  7. Simon Carr Said:

    My primary interest is history. From early times politicians have been rewriting history to influence public opinion. Just look at the Bible, and please note that we still capitalize its first initial as if it were a sacred font of wisdom, instead of a splendidly crafted group of “historical” stories designed to “sell” a religion.

    Bloomberg was absolutely right in his address, and like him, I far more fear the liberal left than the self-righteous right when it comes censoring free speech. Fundamentalist religions are sick enough in their absolutism to discredit themselves almost immediately in the eyes of any thinking person. Liberals are far more devious, and consequently, far more dangerous.

    For the record, it has been over a decade since I last gave to my alma mater, a like institution to those you mention, in part precisely because of the left wing, egalitarian, pro-diversity regardless of merit bias of its administration. It’s sad what has happened there especially as its motto used to be, “In light there is truth.”

  8. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I don’t think Michael Bloomberg would agree with decisions of an institution that changed its plans for a speaker due to pressure from a group of tea party/far-right students, faculty and administrators any more than those with more liberal leanings.

    And while not diverse by today’s definition, because my father wasn’t American I think being tolerably different may have helped me in some circles, so I can only be grateful for liberal-leaning people who gave me any kind of edge, if they did.

    I am neither a knee-jerk liberal nor conservative. However, I don’t think that he/she who shouts loudest should be the only one heard. If the students, faculty and administrators didn’t want to hear a speaker, then it is they who shouldn’t attend a commencement. The entire university shouldn’t suffer nor should it let itself be made to look like a place that doesn’t know what it is doing.

  9. Martha Takayama Said:

    To respond to your comments in the order you made them:

    It is a mystery who chooses commencement speakers and what the criteria are. The possibilities are endless, but it would seem that the news value, prominence, charisma and public recognition , and probably potential for attracting donors must all be part of the selection process. Unless I am ill-informed there is no transparency in this process. Since we do not know how the choices are made it is hard to know who failed to support them in face of obejctions and threats of disrpution.

    Why is Bloomberg so shocked? Does he believe that decisions should be made in a dictatorial fashion with no input from administrators or senior faculty? Why should these people be of no significance.? I don’t think I would like to attend a university with Mr. Bloomberg as President.

    It is important to know what other people of different mind sets think. However, it is not necessary to offer anyone the honor or significance of a Commencement Address to hear their thoughts.

  10. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I suggested in my response to Lucrecia that representatives from student groups–add faculty and administrators too–might be part of the commencement speaker selection process by submitting suggestions.

    This is the aspect of this discussion that I dislike the most. When some people don’t get their way they don’t act appropriately. On a board or committee, you have a choice: Leave or stay and if you stay, use strategy and diplomacy to turn around the vote the next time. Don’t hold hostage the whole operation.

    Instead of learning what you ask in your comment: How IS the commencement speaker chosen? and working within the system—the protestors default to screaming and yelling–virtually if not actually–embarrassing the person who was invited as well as the university that invited them.

    I don’t know who selects the speakers though your guess for the qualifications rings true–no doubt the head of fundraising is a key decision-maker. But this person doesn’t want to cause a kerfuffle–that’s the last thing.

    You and I went to a university with a “my way or the highway” kind of president. [I think he was there when we were and he certainly was there after we graduated.] I’ve written about him in a recent previous comment. He disliked PR people although he took money from students in his PR college and slammed us all in a high profile venue–The New York Times business section. He wasn’t my type as Bloomberg isn’t yours.

    As for Bloomberg being a dictator, he has a vision and isn’t always right but he’s not a poll-taker who doesn’t speak until he sees in which direction the wind blows, which so many politicians do these days. And while off-topic, he’s a very generous billionaire who supports the causes in which he believes such as gun control.

    Brown students didn’t let Ray Kelly speak last fall–it wasn’t at a commencement. This isn’t a civilized way to behave to a guest. If you don’t like the choice of speaker, don’t attend but don’t spoil it for those who want to listen.

  11. Deborah Brown Said:

    I think part of the outrage with Professor Rice was the $35,000. speaker fee. I also think this should be taken on a case by case basis. What would have been the reaction if the NRA president had been invited to speak at Swarthmore college, a Quaker based institution?

  12. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Both good points.

    I don’t think a commencement speaker should be paid a cent for starters. John Q. Citizen on a moderate income isn’t selected, but a successful person who benefits from the honor alone is. Further, an institution should have better things to do with $35,000, starting with giving a scholarship to a student for a year which may be what it costs to attend Rutgers.

    I doubt that the powers at Swarthmore would suggest an NRA president any more than Notre Dame would invite the head of Planned Parenthood though if they did, it wouldn’t hurt either group to hear what the other side had to say. Don’t think it would be worth it fund-raising wise….they’d not do too well the year they did.

  13. Francois Cornilliat Said:

    As one of the Rutgers faculty members involved in the protest against the invitation of Condoleezza Rice, I am of course biased, but may be able to help answer some of the questions raised in this thoughtful and important discussion (which is very different from the mindless rants found on the subject almost everywhere else).

    I just want to clarify the following, contra what Mr. Bloomberg stated or implied in his Harvard speech:

    1) faculty and students at Rutgers did not protest the invitation of Dr. Rice because they deemed her “politically objectionable”; they would NOT oppose listening to her in a normal academic setting, allowing intellectual exchange; Dr. Rice (we said so repeatedly) would be welcome to give a talk or participate in a debate at Rutgers at any time (for the record, if I may add: it think it was wrong to prevent Mr. Kelly from speaking at Brown);

    2) while Commencement, as I will point out below, is not a normal academic setting, we do NOT object to Commencement speakers on ideological grounds: in 2006, Tom Kean, former Republican governor of New Jersey, gave a Commencement address at Rutgers; in 2010, Chris Christie, as is our tradition with new NJ governors, received an honorary Degree and gave a speech at Commencement; nobody protested (for the record: it would not have occurred to me to do so, even though I profoundly dislike Mr. Christie’s politics and policies);

    3) Bloomberg’s argument, parroting a Fox News talking point set in place during the very first days of the controversy, that the protesters were somehow “afraid” to be exposed to “different ideas” that would “challenge their worldview” is absurd on its face: what are the chances that Dr. Rice’s Commencement speech would have said anything politically “challenging,” let alone addressed the controversial aspects of her record that were the focus of our protest?

    4) a Commencement speech and an honorary Degree constitute an honor, the highest a College or University can give; both imply a moral endorsement on the part of that institution; a Doctorate degree is not a “speech” at all, academic or otherwise; a Commencement speech is not an academic talk, subject to debate or inquiry; the speaker is invested with the moral authority to lecture students about their lives, and the students have no opportunity to challenge what they hear;

    5) as a consequence, it should be obvious that students and faculty have every right to object to such an honor, which is given in their name and on their behalf, if they feel that it is not appropriate, especially when no adequate consultation took place beforehand;

    6) in the latter respect, it should at least be noted that the decision to invite and honor Dr. Rice was made in secret, at least a year before it was announced, by a handful of administrators, in deliberate contempt of traditional consultation procedures – in other words, in contempt of the quaint notion known as “academic freedom”;

    7) for the record, the protesters had no intention or plan to create any disturbance at Commencement itself, out of respect for the graduating students and their families; had Dr. Rice decided to come, she might have spotted, at most, black armbands on some sleeves, and some in the 10,000-strong audience silently turning their backs;

    8) finally, and most importantly (nothing else matters remotely as much): we opposed the honor in question because of Dr. Rice’s past actions; because of what she DID – not because of her “views,” not because of what she says or thinks, not because of her political affiliation. There was NO OTHER REASON. We simply said that someone who was involved in a campaign of misrepresentations and, yes, lies, designed to help launch of a war of aggression, and in the authorization of certain torture practices (both of which are not matters of opinion but documented facts, available for all to see in multiple Senate reports and press reports), did not deserve an honorary Doctorate of Laws and should not be presented as a moral role model to our graduating students.

    We also felt that an institution of higher learning would dishonor itself by acting as if the Iraq disaster, with the immense suffering it inflicted, never took place or did not entail any responsibility on the part of the officials who caused it; in short, as if history did not exist and truth did not matter. That is the ethical and intellectual imperative that drove the Rutgers faculty protesters (376 of them signed the petition; 65%, according to an internal poll, said they would welcome Dr. Rice at Rutgers but not at Commencement) and, most admirably and decisively, the student protesters, who rose on their own (no one told them to do so), on behalf of historical truth and human rights, against misdeeds that took place when they were very young – and, as a reward for this act of conscience, had to endure heaps of abuse, ranging from condescension to hatred, from legions of dishonest or misinformed commentators writing in lockstep, self-proclaimed defenders of free speech all, and all perfectly happy to insult protesters and tell them to shut up without even bothering to learn, or try to understand, what they were protesting against.

    In the end, it did not matter: those students stood up for something far larger, for a principle that they chose not to forget, and with a courage that, I hope, will not be forgotten.

  14. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Professor Cornilliat,

    Thank you for taking so much time to clarify what happened at Rutgers. I understand why you, the other professors and students protested the choice of Dr. Rice and wonder what the administration’s reaction to the petition was. Did the petitioners give it some time or go simultaneously to the media with their concerns?

    As important, has Rutgers set up a system where an invitation doesn’t go out without a period of discussion by a committee that represents various points of view so this doesn’t happen again?

    I am relieved to hear that the graduate protestors at Rutgers would not have made a violent or nasty fuss had Dr. Rice spoken. I’ve rarely agreed with every decision a boss or client of mine has taken. [I’ve resigned two clients that have gone too far.] I think the others would tell you that while I speak my mind, I do so respectfully, [which you sound as though you also did], and that I am careful not to make them feel embarrassed or up against a wall.

    I trust that universities—administrators and faculty—will work out an acceptable formula to prevent similar potential humiliation in future. I predict that at one point few, short of Mother Theresa equivalents, will accept an honorary degree and speak at commencements.

  15. Francois Cornilliat Said:

    Ms. Byington,

    thank you for your thoughtful reply. The petition, which was only one of the actions undertaken, was in fact published after the matter had already become public and caught the attention of some media (mostly local NJ media, plus Fox News, which pounced on the issue right away, followed by a cohort of right-wing outfits). What made the matter public, inevitably so, was a resolution voted by the Rutgers – New Brunswick Faculty Council, soon followed by its Rutgers – Newark counterpart: the Councils’ meetings are public and their resolutions are public documents. President Barchi had known about the discontent for some time, but his reaction to the publicity, in early March, was to defend and uphold the invitation on “free speech” grounds, which in his view was to bring the nascent debate to an end; needless to say, the irony was not lost on us, and the debate only grew louder. Media attention remained quite limited, however; what took it to the next level, in late April, was the students’ actions, followed by Dr. Rice’s decision to withdraw; the Brandeis, Smith, and Haverford controversies also added to the tumult. But to answer your question without going into too much detail: the previous selection procedure for Commencement speakers and honorary Degrees involved a large faculty-chaired committee, with student representatives; in 2012 this committee was replaced by a smaller one, consisting mostly of administrators; and the Rice decision, so far as we know, essentially bypassed even this smaller committee. President Barchi, to his credit, has indicated that he is open to re-examining the procedure, and we hope that something closer to the original process will be restored; the University Senate will take on the matter this Fall. You are perfectly right to say that much is at stake, in terms of who will be asked and who will accept to speak at Commencement, if such controversies continue to erupt; but I honestly think that a large part of the problem is administrative high-handedness, which is itself caused, in my view, by a disproportionate increase in corporate and donor power among governors and trustees, at the expense of everyone else. The most charitable interpretation of the Rice case (if we refuse to think that it was, plain and simple, a political manipulation: personally I believe it was, but can’t prove it) is that it was a “PR coup” born in the minds of people who put PR, power, wealth, and connections among the powerful and wealthy above academic and intellectual interests – or, worse, can no longer tell the difference between the two. The effect of such a mindset is plain for all to see.

  16. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Professor Cornilliat,

    I’ve been on boards where a few people make disastrous decisions that could have been avoided had the board been given a chance to chime in. Frustrating and more than irritating.

    I hope you are wrong in your assessment of power and wealth determining how high profile decisions at Rutgers are made but then why should the university be any different than anywhere else these days? “He who funds, runs,” is what a colleague used to say and that was years ago.

    While a coup for those who made the committee disappear and got away with it, I don’t see it as a “pr coup” because it was an unwise way to achieve the goal. A pr person worth his/her salt, familiar with the way such decisions were made previously and the potential reaction to the speaker, would have counseled their client to reconsider and achieve consensus. To be useful to a client, a PR person must be ready to speak her mind.

    “Because I say so” may work with a three year old child, but these days it doesn’t fly in organizations. A major publisher told me, right after the Enron debacle when he called his staff together to calm frazzled nerves, that at first he was shocked when a young editor asked him about the health of this publicly owned company in which most of those in the room owned shares. “The nerve!” was his first thought, and then he realized that in this climate, the young man had every right to ask this appropriate question.

  17. Francois Cornilliat Said:

    Ms. Byington,
    thank you for your important correction to my rather cavalier last words. I should have made it clear that “PR” in the minds of high-handed, insulated “deciders” is the opposite of what actual public relations – within and without any structure – should be about. The same, by the way, is true of donors, whose generosity is so important to American universities : a disinterested donation to a cause or institution one believes in is (or should be) the very opposite of “pay to play.”

  18. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Professor Cornilliat,

    I’m a longtime mentor at Baruch College in NYC and when I first joined this group, I asked one of the founders what it was about these volunteers that made most of them friendly and welcoming–not always the case at NYC receptions. We were at a mentor gratitude event at the time. He described these volunteers as people who want to help others in a way that doesn’t shine spotlights on them. In this business climate a Pollyanna- to-the-point-of-naïveté concept, perhaps, but the kind of “donation” that most helps a university.

    You may have realized that I am a PR person–overly sensitive—and yet an ardent one who believes we can play an important role in helping guide a company or organization, if we are allowed to do so.

    “Service of Pay to Play” was the subject of a recent post on this blog. Hmmmm

  19. Francois Cornilliat Said:

    Ms. Byington,
    Thank you very much for your volunteer work at Baruch.
    Far from being “overly sensitive,” you were a model of fairness reacting to my poor choice of words at the end of my previous message! In fact, taking a better look at your company’s description (which I should have done in the first place), I am struck by your emphasis on “service” – for your business and on this blog. This is a word we should all be using… What it asks of us is not just what we are doing, but what (and who) we are doing it for; not just what we are “selling,” but why – in the name of what – we would care to do it in the first place. One of the lessons I will remember from the Rice controversy is that a lot of the “communication” apparently going on (in papers, on TV, online) is anything but: no crossroads, no contact, no understanding, no “relations” worthy of the name. There is, in most places, a lot of work to do before an actual exchange can even take place, on an actual subject…
    Thank you again for this conversation, and best wishes.

Leave a Reply

Clicky Web Analytics