The New School Commencement Protest: A Faculty Member's View

I teach creative writing at the New School and I'm an organizer of the protest by students, faculty, and staff in response to President Bob Kerrey's choice of Senator John McCain as our commencement speaker. Having read President Kerrey's defense of his own actions--offered under the guise of defending our graduates from criticism of their vocal, sometimes irreverent rebuke to Senator McCain--I want to offer my perspective. That perspective includes background information that is missing from President Kerrey's statement. And it supplies further context for student speaker Jean Rohe's moving account of what prompted her brave decision to challenge Senator McCain's condescension to the graduates and his championing of an illegal war.

President Kerrey mentions that an "impressive number" of students and faculty disagreed with his decision to invite McCain. I think it's important to be clear about the variety of constituencies within the university community that objected, as well as the range of reasons for so doing. When it became known that Senator McCain would speak, there was widespread consternation and a sense of helplessness. "It's awful--but what can we do?" seemed to be the dominant sentiment.

The organized protest began when a small group of students and faculty drafted a petition calling on President Kerrey to withdraw his invitation to McCain. After discussing which of Senator McCain's positions we found most offensive--his career-long disrespect for women's reproductive rights, his stubborn opposition to equal protection under the law for lesbians and gay men, his advocacy of pre-emptive war even before 9/11--we realized that it made little sense to establish a rank order. What about the fact that McCain was cozying up to Jerry Falwell by speaking at Liberty University? That he was using his engagement at the New School to deflect criticism of the Liberty appearance as he revved up his bid for the Republican presidential nomination? That he'd recently been singing George W. Bush's praises despite Bush's evisceration of the anti-torture measure he'd sponsored?

Between mid-April and mid-May, over a thousand members of the New School community signed our petition. The University Student Senate wrote a letter calling on Kerrey to rescind the invitation. The president of OPEN, the university's gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender group, explained how it hurt the school's queer community to be asked to join in honoring a politician who has supported a range of homophobic legislation. Whatever their individual views of the issues, the vast majority of petition signers shared a sense that McCain's reputation as "maverick" and "moderate" belies his actual record as an unequivocal reactionary on crucial domestic and foreign policy matters. Surely commencement--by tradition a celebration of the graduates and a ceremonial reaffirmation of the institution's core identity--was not the time to offer a platform to any politician in full campaign mode, let alone one of McCain's stripe.

All that said, we never objected to giving Senator McCain a hearing at the New School. Our petition affirmed the university's responsibility to offer a forum for all views in contexts that allow free debate. But we definitely resisted being cast as mute extras in a McCain campaign commercial.

Given the political agenda framing McCain's string of commencement appearances, it's disingenuous for President Kerrey to write "I believed our students would benefit from hearing his message." The actual speech was, predictably, so lacking in analytic rigor that it would have gotten poor marks from any composition teacher for its weak argumentation, though not its rhetoric. McCain wrapped a hard little nugget of violent nationalism (support for the war in Iraq because U.S. "interests and values required it") in yards of fluffy platitudes that obscure the ugly reality of an invasion based on lies, greed, and disregard for the basic humanity of ordinary Iraqis. Many in the audience remembered that Kerrey was himself a cheerleader for this conflict, having served with Senator McCain on the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq in the fall of 2002--the first college semester for most students now graduating with B.A. degrees.

President Kerrey answers the criticism that his unilateral selection of McCain was undemocratic by saying that longstanding university policy allows the president to choose the commencement speaker. That may be true, but it casts a harsh light on the state of governance in our legendarily progressive institution. The fact that despotism tends to go unchallenged so long as it remains more or less benevolent is not an argument in favor of one-man rule. Concerned about abuse of the presidential prerogative, the University Senate took up this issue in early May, voting unanimously to alter the procedure. From now on, the president's choice of a speaker will have to be approved by the faculty committee that recommends candidates for honorary degrees.

Events surrounding our commencement raise other troubling questions about institutional democracy at the New School. While organizing the protest, I spoke with non-tenured faculty members who were very upset and wanted to take action but worried about jeopardizing their jobs. Outside Madison Square Garden on the day of commencement, heavily armed and helmeted guards, some with German shepherds, stood watch in front of a security checkpoint. Many students had their orange protest fliers confiscated; one was threatened with arrest for trying to enter the building with his fliers. An article posted on Daily Kos describes how an Arab man about to receive his Ph.D. in economics was arbitrarily barred from his own graduation (see "My Husband Was Racially Profiled at the New School Graduation"). While it's not clear who employed the security guards, the university bears a responsibility to ensure that its events are free of such abuses.

In the words of an open letter from several student protest organizers, "The New School is founded on the inclusion of marginalized political and academic views. This institution melds activist and intellectual pursuits, creating a space where change is seen as a tangible possibility. Even at the New School we feel the possibilities for critical discussion have been shrinking." The remarkable outpouring of affirmation for Jean Rohe's courageous stand reveals the power of people's yearning to reverse the shrinkage of those possibilities in the society at large.