MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Commencement speaker shakeups have been another source of controversy on campuses. Several prominent public servants have pulled out of speeches this spring in response to student and faculty protests over their politics. Protesters say they're frustrated by schools' growing obsession with big name speakers. But some higher education leaders worry an intolerant minority is hijacking graduation.
Eric Westervelt, with the NPR Ed Team, has more.
ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: Christine Lagarde has been an outspoken proponent of women's rights. She has a seat at the global table as the first woman to lead the International Monetary Fund. Smith College leaders saw her as a good choice to speak at one of America's top women's liberal arts colleges. But the fund's global policies have made the IMF a protest lightening rod. Smith students started an online petition calling on the school to withdraw Lagarde's graduation invitation. One Smith student wrote that she was quote, "utterly disgusted Smith has chosen to host someone from the IMF, an organization that has proven itself to be nothing but imperialistic, ineffective, and oppressive."
This week, Lagarde withdrew, saying she didn't want to distract from the graduation celebration. Kathleen McCartney is the president of Smith College.
KATHLEEN MCCARTNEY: I think we are seeing a disturbing trend and I've been describing it as a lack of tolerance for a wide variety of views.
WESTERVELT: McCartney says she'll defend and promote her student's right to protest anything they want to. But she's troubled by a creeping new form of political correctness she's seeing on some campuses, including hers, where some students on the left don't seem to want to hear from or engage with public servants whose policies or beliefs they might disagree with. Now, McCartney plans to push back.
MCCARTNEY: So in this case, you know, I am going to speak about and write about my dismay over the narrowing of views that are deemed acceptable by some groups of students on some campuses.
WESTERVELT: Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently backed out of a Rutgers graduation speech after campus protests over her role in the Iraq War. Rutgers history professor Rudy Bell helped lead those protests. He says this isn't about free speech. Rice, Bell says, is welcome to speak on campus anytime except graduation weekend, where a speech and honorary degree signal the school's endorsement of the life work of the speaker.
RUDY BELL: Starting needless wars that lead to 100,000 deaths and a million displacements are not the kind of accomplishments that we consider something Rutgers University should valorize with an honorary degree. It has nothing to do with academic freedom. I mean, she's welcome to speak on Monday.
WESTERVELT: Protesting campus speakers is not new. But Lawrence Bacow, the former president of Tufts University, calls this year's string of back-outs troubling. He worries the incidents show that too many students are living in a kind of intellectual echo chamber and self-selecting people who will reinforce their world view.
LAWRENCE BACOW: And I think that's sad. The role of a speaker - any speaker - who seeks to educate the audience that they're speaking to is to challenge their beliefs, not necessarily simply to reinforce them.
WESTERVELT: Bacow, a respected voice in higher education now at Harvard, says more students seem to want a celebrity to entertain them. He notes that those pressured to withdraw have devoted their lives to public service, which means they've inevitably made controversial decisions.
BACOW: And so if the test to giving a commencement speech is that one has never offended anyone by virtue of anything ever one has done in public life, they're going to be very few people who can give commencement speeches.
WESTERVELT: Meantime, Smith College president Kathleen McCartney is dealing with angry alumni and students as graduation weekend approaches. She says she'll use this year's dust up as a chance for campus dialogue.
MCCARTNEY: I actually think this has been a tipping point. And I think that's a good thing. It will spark much needed debate about who has a voice to speak on campus.
WESTERVELT: McCartney says, come fall, she'll organize forums on academic freedom and she vows that they will have a diversity of views.
Eric Westervelt, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.