Christine Lagarde and Condoleezza Rice withdrawing as college commencement speakers after student protests? Awkward. Letting students choose whom to honor? Better.
FORTUNE — There must be a better way to choose commencement speakers.
The latest contretemps involves International Monetary Fund managing director Christine Lagarde, who was scheduled to give the graduation address at Smith College. She announced on Monday that she wouldn’t be making the trip to Northampton, Mass., because 477 students and faculty had signed a petition objecting to her speaking. Nine days earlier, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made the same decision, for essentially the same reason, about her planned speech at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
The reason there must be a better way to choose these speakers is not that Lagarde or Rice were poor choices. To the contrary, I believe they were both outstanding choices. The problem is that both speakers were right to withdraw, which they did by the same sound logic. Lagarde said she did so “to preserve the celebratory spirit of commencement day.” Rice said, “Commencement should be a time of joyous celebration,” which she didn’t want to spoil by showing up and making a lot of people mad.
So the administrators of both schools ended up embarrassed, offending an invited guest, and having to rustle up a replacement on short notice, who will step to the podium knowing the audience regards him or her as a make-do choice whose primary qualification was availability.
Of course students have been protesting campus speakers forever. Just last fall, then-New York City police chief Ray Kelly was heckled out of the room at Brown University during a much lower profile appearance, in clear violation of the university’s code that prohibits such behavior. To state the obvious, a university needs to remain a safe haven for every point of view, which lives or dies in reasoned debate.
But commencement is different. A commencement speaker is not just someone with an interesting perspective for members of the academic community to hear and discuss. That person is being honored. And, as Lagarde and Rice noted, the occasion is a happy one. That’s why the band plays “Gaudeamus Igitur” (“Let Us Rejoice”).
The protesting students and faculty of Smith and Rutgers may be utterly, sadly misguided in objecting to Lagarde and Rice, as I believe they are—but who cares what I think? If the choice of a particular speaker is going to whip some significant portion of the community into a fury, then it’s best that that person not appear – and not be invited in the first place.
So here’s my solution: Hold a vote. Everyone on campus can participate, and everyone will know that the winner has majority support. I don’t actually think this solution will produce electrifying commencement speakers. I suspect it will produce platitude-spouting mediocrities. After a few years of those, who knows—the community might begin to wonder if maybe brilliant, accomplished people whose views one doesn’t entirely share could be worth listening to anyway.