US News & World Report

By Nicole Hemmer

Conservatives are disappearing from commencement programs, according to Harry Enten at the data-crunching site FiveThirtyEight. Over the past two years, the top 30 universities and top 30 liberal arts colleges hosted 20 political commencement speakers, with nary a conservative in their ranks. Quite a change from 10 years earlier, when political speakers were more evenly split between liberals and conservatives.

While noting the change is due in part to a difference in political climate — 10 years ago there was a Republican administration and the GOP was more popular — Enten concludes that polarization bears the bulk of the blame. Many people don’t like hearing contrary views, he writes, so “on elite college campuses, where supporters of Democrats outnumber Republicans, the lack of conservative speakers isn’t surprising.” Perhaps not surprising, but a troubling trend these colleges should work to reverse.

When Condoleezza Rice withdrew from speaking at Rutgers University following faculty protests, she explained her decision was out of respect for the day’s celebratory intent. “Commencement should be a time of joyous celebration for the graduates and their families,” the former secretary of state wrote. “Rutgers’ invitation to me to speak has become a distraction for the university community at this very special time.”

It’s a respectable sentiment. But commencements at these elite institutions mark the completion of a course of study designed to make students critical thinkers and engaged citizens. What better way to honor that than with speakers from across the political spectrum, speakers students may disagree with, may even protest against, but to whom they can listen as well?

A central component of higher education and democratic citizenship is the ability to question deeply-held beliefs and to engage challenging ideas. As students leave their universities, they graduate into a society that increasingly discourages both activities. More Americans live in ideologically sorted neighborhoods. Fewer approve of mixed-party marriages. A fragmented media landscape allows users to construct information gateways that confirm rather than challenge their worldviews — and partisans readily do so.

Commencement ceremonies are colleges’ last opportunity to demonstrate the importance of challenging that social arrangement. Elite institutions have instead purged commencements of both conservatism and controversy (see the cancellation of International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde’s speech to Smith College graduates).

This is not to say these colleges should be lining up Ann Coulter or Glenn Beck for their 2015 commencements. Universities are institutions where the quality of a person’s ideas still matter, after all. Nor does it mean students should be forbidden from protesting invited speakers. Colleges are also places where students learn about social activism. And universities should be encouraged to think beyond liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican, in choosing political speakers. Challenging ideas don’t always come in neatly labeled packages.

It does mean, however, that graduation day should not be a time when conservatives and controversialists are kept off the main stage. Rice was right to note that commencement is a “joyous celebration.” But it’s a celebration of diverse and challenging ideas, and commencement speakers should reflect that.

This article was originally published in the US News & World Report