Democrats at the Podium

It is graduation time, a time of annual traditions: caps and gowns, “Pomp and Circumstance,” and … liberal commencement speakers. At least that is the case for colleges in the Triangle and Triad regions of North Carolina surveyed by the Pope Center.

With the exception of South African Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, who is speaking at UNC-Chapel Hill, the list of local commencement speakers reads like a Who’s Who of the Democratic Party. There are Vice President Joseph Biden (Wake Forest), Governor Beverly Perdue (UNC-Greensboro), Democratic congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee (Shaw), and television celebrity Oprah Winfrey (Duke). Even Campbell University, usually considered conservative, selected its Democratic congressman, Bob Etheridge.

Our search of college commencements turned up only two clearly conservative speakers, both at law schools, not full university ceremonies. Former Bush administration attorney general Michael Mukasey will speak at UNC-Chapel Hill Law School, but his appearance has split the faculty, some of whom circulated a petition condemning the invitation. (There has been no similar outcry against any of this year’s liberal speakers.) Robert Edmunds Jr., associate justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court and a Republican, will speak at Campbell Law School’s commencement.

Of course, some universities avoided politics or political overtones. One way is to invite entrepreneurs. N.C. State graduates will hear John Seely Brown, co-chairman of the Deloitte Center for Edge Innovation, an offshoot of the accounting firm Deloitte and Touche. Highpoint invited former astronaut Buzz Aldrin.

But the political choices are almost always on the left, whether it is a relatively anonymous district judge or the current vice president of the United States. For some reason, this tilt causes little comment. I haven’t read any newspaper articles saying that there is something wrong with having only Democrats welcome graduates into the post-academic world.

And commencement speeches are just the tip of the iceberg. Throughout the academic year, schools hold lectures and workshops that support the prevailing atmosphere—which tends to be anti-market and hostile to tradition. Some of these lectures are overtly political. The Pope Center’s Jay Schalin has pointed out that Democrats heavily outweighed Republicans in N. C. State’s star-studded Millennium Seminar Series—and conservatives were ignored entirely.

Over the past year, the Pope Center has kept an informal tally of speakers at universities in North Carolina, especially the Triangle area. Although many talks are non-political and non-ideological, the big names tend to be on the ideological left. Consider population alarmist Paul Ehrlich at Duke and poet Maya Angelou and feminist Catherine McKinnon at Chapel Hill.

There are exceptions. Although N.C. State’s Millennium Series was composed mostly of Democrats, N.C. State also hosted a major speech by William Easterly, an increasingly important economist. Easterly does not describe himself as liberal or conservative, but his contention that foreign aid hurts the recipients more than it helps them places him in a libertarian or conservative camp.

There have been some conservative speakers in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area—most recently, former congressmen Tom Tancredo and Virgil Goode, who spoke on immigration at UNC-Chapel Hill. Their speeches were greeted by boos and catcalls from an unruly mob of protesters. Tancredo was forced to halt his talk, and at least seven protesters were arrested at the two events.

Indeed, student groups, not faculty or administrators, are probably the major contributors to what diversity of thought there is on campus. A student group, Youth for Western Civilization, brought in Tancredo and Goode, and also sponsored a talk by Bay Buchanan, another anti-immigration speaker.

Another student group, Young Americans for Liberty, sponsored Ron Paul, a libertarian and former Republican presidential candidate, at Wake Forest. The UNC-Chapel Hill College Republicans brought in Frank Turek, best known for his debate with Christopher Hitchens on the existence of God (he was “for”). The UNC-Chapel Hill Libertarians hosted Mark Bauerlein—an English professor from Emory University who is apolitical but considered conservative.

Thus, the prevailing leftwing ideology may reflect faculty and administration viewpoints, but not students.’ Yet it is administrators who have the biggest role in the selection of most commencement speakers; Michael Mukasey was an outlier, selected by the UNC Student Bar Association.

If students are interested in intellectual diversity and administrators are not, perhaps there is a gap between the views of the academic establishment and society at large. And surely, the wider range of opinions sought by students should be reflected in the choice of commencement speakers.

But wait. Why should the graduates’ commencements be any different than their one-sided educations?

The following list of commencement speakers covers the area around the capital of North Carolina. In a future column, I will discuss a couple of campus speeches in greater depth.

Editor’s note: After publication, it came to our attention that Aldona Wos, former Ambassador to Estonia, is a Republican.

2009 Commencement Speakers
Colleges and Universities in North Carolina’s Piedmont Region