My Perspective on the New School Commencement

Our students were moved by idealism, not arrogance. I may not agree with their conclusions, but I do not begin with the presumption that my age gives me a privileged view of the truth.
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After following the exchange between Senator John McCain's Chief of Staff, Mark Salter, and one of The New School's graduating students Jean Sara Rohe, I am compelled to add my perspective and thoughts about the events, which took place at last Friday's New School commencement.

First of all, I made the decision to invite Senator McCain because he is a distinguished and rightly celebrated world leader whose life story is an inspiration to most. He is also a friend and former colleague with whom I served for 12 years in the U.S. Senate. During that time, we have had our moments of strong agreement and disagreement. The former always feel good and the later always feel like I have just fought with my brother.

Second, an impressive number of my students and faculty disagreed with my decision and urged me to withdraw the invitation. Their objections were largely centered on an assertion that Senator McCain does not represent the values of The New School. After listening to these objections and considering them respectfully, I decided that I would not withdraw my invitation to Senator McCain, in part, because I believe he does represent some of the most important values of The New School and also because I believed our students would benefit from hearing his message.

Third, the argument made by some, that this decision was improper because it was made in a non-democratic, top-down manner, does not acknowledge that for at least a quarter century, New School presidents have selected commencement speakers in the same manner that I chose Senator McCain. I used my authority correctly and take full responsibility for the results.

That said, I now speak in defense of the behavior of my students - the minority who protested and the majority who did not. On the surface, some of the tactics of the protest were rude, noisy, and disrespectful. Less obvious, however, was the self-restraint that prevented the protestors from behaving in a fashion that would have shut down the commencement or made it impossible for Senator McCain or me to continue. Though many in the audience - including Senator McCain and I - were offended by the heckling, at no time were we in danger of not being able to proceed. By the end of the program, we had awarded five honorary degrees and graduated 2,630 students in The New School's 70th Commencement ceremony.

More importantly -- and also lost in the charges and counter-charges -- is this fact: student protests are a necessary and essential part of democratic free expression. Did we not love the brave and disrespectful students at Tiananmen? Did we not applaud the determination of the student led movements that helped bring down the dictators that ruled Eastern Europe in 1991? Have we forgotten the critical difference students made in reversing an unlawful election in Ukraine or in driving the Syrians from Lebanon or who still seethe in discontent under the religious law of Iran's mullahs?

Thus, when some of the critics of The New School students suggest they should have behaved with more discipline, as did the students at Liberty University, I strongly disagree. Our students were moved by idealism, not arrogance. I may not agree with their conclusions, but I do not begin with the presumption that my age gives me a privileged view of the truth. Quite the contrary - I believe that those of us who are older should keep our ears and hearts open to the possibility that our age may have cost us the most important of human characteristics: the hope for a better, fairer, and more just world.

To the specifics of the debate surrounding Senator McCain's speech I noted in particular Jean Sara Rohe's objection to this statement by the Senator:

"When I was a young man, I was quite infatuated with self-expression, and rightly so because, if memory conveniently serves, I was so much more eloquent, well-informed, and wiser than anyone else I knew. It seemed I understood the world and the purpose of life so much more profoundly than most people. I believed that to be especially true with many of my elders, people whose only accomplishment, as far as I could tell, was that they had been born before me, and, consequently, had suffered some number of years deprived of my insights. I had opinions on everything, and I was always right. I loved to argue, and I could become understandably belligerent with people who lacked the grace and intelligence to agree with me. With my superior qualities so obvious, it was an intolerable hardship to have to suffer fools gladly. So I rarely did. All their resistance to my brilliantly conceived and cogently argued views proved was that they possessed an inferior intellect and a weaker character than God had blessed me with, and I felt it was my clear duty to so inform them. It's a pity that there wasn't a blogosphere then. I would have felt very much at home in the medium."

When I first read this statement, it did not occur to me that this would offend a young audience. That is because Senator McCain and I are approximately the same age. I heard a humble and contrite man offering himself as an example of the danger of human arrogance. This is not an uncommon commencement message and I thought Senator McCain's delivery would give it special meaning.

As I listened to Ms. Rohe, however, I understood why the statement, in the context of a debate between those who objected to the Senator's presence and the Senator, would be offensive. Senator McCain, quite understandably because he was speaking, did not. Thus was born a disagreement that has unfortunately become too personal and too directed at the intelligence and motivation of the participants.

I do wish that Senator McCain had not been insulted at our commencement. And, I hope he does not conclude that our university and our students do not respect him. We do. Further, I hope he comes to understand that among the reasons we admire and respect him is that he sometimes still confronts the overly-circumspect and sluggish protocols of the U.S. Senate to fight against government waste and corruption and to advance laws that will make us feel proud, rather than ashamed. I know from personal experience that many who have found themselves on the opposing side of his arguments have, at times, wondered about the absence of civility and courtesy in his tactics when he is passionately and doggedly working for what he believes.

Those of us who respect the Senator so much understand that that is one of the reasons John McCain is so effective. I contend that our protesting students deserve the same credit.

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