2016 Commencement Season Relatively Calm, But Lacks Viewpoint Diversity

Each year commencement season brings the opportunity for celebrities and politicians to speak to college graduates and impart sage advice.

But in the past few years there has been a notable push from students to object to speakers who hold viewpoints contrary to the predominantly left-leaning campus climate. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education maintains a database of “disinvitation” attempts, which lists 134 instances nationwide since 2010–36 of which successfully banned the speaker. 

It appears 2016 is a calm year for disinvitation attempts. So far none have succeeded.

In March students at the University of Alabama at Huntsville circulated a petition to remove United States Senator Jeff Sessions as commencement speaker. The petition, which received about 500 signatures, cited Sessions’s ties to Donald Trump as a reason to revoke his invitation. However, the university reasserted the Sessions choice and affirmed its dedication to respect and civility.

While examples of students who attempt to remove speakers for ideological reasons have grown common, there were two disinvitation attempts this year for more unusual reasons. 

At Tulane University students attempted to remove “Today Show” co-host Hoda Kotb for not being inspirational enough. A student petition against Kotb’s selection stated that Kotb “spends her time sipping wine on talk shows, and discussing which dog breed is trendiest in 2016. There’s hardly anything inspirational about that.” 

A few days after the petition circulated, other students initiated another petition to welcome Kotb. It has gained more than 900 signatures. The university stood by its choice and the controversy seems to have waned.

Another unusual situation arose at Barnard College in New York. The private liberal arts college announced in March that its commencement speaker would be noted women’s rights activist Anne-Marie Slaughter (who is also this year’s speaker at UNC-Chapel Hill). The choice caused a stir after a student wrote an op-ed denouncing Slaughter as an “upper-middle-class, white, heterosexual women” and urged the campus to choose a minority woman instead. In response, Barnard’s president, Debora Spar, wrote a public letter that reasserted her confidence in the choice The university ultimately did not disinvite Slaughter.

It’s possible that the relatively calm season is the result of well-publicized controversy in previous years, as universities appear to overwhelming exclude conservative speakers from commencement ceremonies. A 2015 study from Young America’s Foundation found that, of the top 50 universities ranked by US News and World Report, the ratio of liberal to conservative speakers was nine to one. 

That trend holds at North Carolina universities. Including Slaughter, speakers such as Melissa Harris-Perry at Winston-Salem State University, Bakari Sellers at Elizabeth City State University, and Anthony Foxx at North Carolina A&T are all well-known liberals. 

Other high-profile speakers include global media giant Oprah Winfrey at Johnson C. Smith University and Condoleezza Rice at High Point University. Rice, who has a history of being disinvited from campus events, is certainly the highest-profile conservative speaker in the state. 

Aside from the controversy caused by commencement speakers for ideological reasons, attracting high-profile speakers often demands substantial speaking fees. In the past universities have paid between $1,000 and $100,000 per speech. It’s hard to believe that students wouldn’t prefer that money be spent on other campus necessities. Bradley University in Illinois recently announced it would no longer solicit outside commencement speakers, in an effort to save money, time, and avoid controversy.

Additionally two universities announced plans to feature speakers from within. Duke University will feature Mike Krzyzewski, its men’s basketball coach, and faculty member Carmen Huffman will speak for Western Carolina University at its ceremony.

Below is a list of 2016 commencement speakers in North Carolina known at press time:

  • Bennett College: LaShawne Holland, Entrepreneur 
  • Davidson County Community College: Richard Burr, North Carolina Senator 
  • Duke University: Mike Krzyzewski, men’s basketball coach
  • East Carolina University, Rick Atkinson, Pulitzer Prize-winning author 
  • Elizabeth City State University: Bakari Sellers, CNN contributor 
  • Elon University: David Gergen, CNN political analyst
  • Fayetteville State University: Robyn Hadley, alum and Rhodes scholar
  • Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary: Rev. Dr. Brenda Salter McNeil, author and trailblazer in reconciliation studies.
  • Greensboro College: Rev. Dr. Samuel Moore, member of the Board of Trustees
  • Guilford College: Dr. William J. Barber II, president of North Carolina NAACP
  • High Point University: Condoleezza Rice, former U.S. Secretary of State
  • Johnson C. Smith University: Oprah Winfrey, global media entrepreneur
  • Lees–McRae College: Dr A. Hope Williams, president of North Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities
  • Meredith College: Ellen Stofan, NASA Chief Scientist
  • Methodist University: Dr. Nancy J. Cable, president of the Arthur Vining Davis Foundation
  • North Carolina A&T State University: Anthony Foxx, United States Secretary of Transportation
  • North Carolina Central University: Cory Booker, U.S Senator from New Jersey 
  • North Carolina State University: Admiral Michelle Howard, vice chief of naval operations
  • Pfeiffer University: Dr. Craig Burnette, expert on veteran homelessness and solutions
  • Piedmont Baptist College: Dr. David E. Bouler, director of Global Faith Ministries.
  • Queens University of Charlotte: Tom Shadyac, Hollywood movie director
  • Shaw University: Fred A. Whitfield, sports executive
  • St. Augustine’s College: Reverend Fr. Martini Shaw, spiritual leader
  • University of North Carolina at Asheville: Virgil Smith, former Asheville Citizen-Times publisher
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: Anne-Marie Slaughter, writer and women’s rights advocate
  • University of North Carolina at Greensboro: Denise Turner Roth, Administrator of the United States GSA
  • University of North Carolina at Pembroke: Dr. Sally McRorie, provost and executive vice president of academic affairs at Florida State University. 
  • University of North Carolina at Wilmington: Jean Matney English, Vice President Global Marketing, IBM Cloud and others
  • University of North Carolina School of the Arts: Kelli O’Hara, Broadway actress 
  • Wake Forest University: Eboo Patel, founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core 
  • Western Carolina University: Carmen Huffman, the university’s recipient of the 2016 UNC Board of Governors Award for Excellence in Teaching
  • William Peace University: Lynn K Erdman, CEO Healthcare Industry, alum
  • Winston-Salem State University: Melissa Harris-Perry, author, former MSNBC host