The white nationalist terror attack in Charlottesville last weekend startled and enraged Americans due to its presence of Nazis, Ku Klux Klan supporters, and other white nationalists. What’s even more harrowing is that several of these white nationalists are also students at American universities. The participation of students in this attack raises a scary question: what kind of culture is being fostered on university campuses that would make students march alongside Nazi and KKK supporters? This question has been answered before by advocates who argue that by allowing Trump-supporting speakers on college campuses, universities are fostering bigotry. Nevertheless, the debate always dies down once the speaker has been disinvited or the speech ends, leaving universities with no real solution to the problem. However, the question at hand isn’t just whether or not someone linked with bigotry can speak at a college. It’s whether or not a person that has bigoted views but is also an influential figure shaping college students’ world, should be allowed to speak on the college campus – and there are several solutions.
The problem with guest speakers accused of bigotry is that a lot of these guest speakers are still influential figures in the world college students live in. Graduating seniors at the historically black Bethune-Cookman University booed Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos at the university’s graduation ceremony in May. DeVos has been accused of “whitewashing” the history of HBCUs since February, when she claimed that historically black colleges and universities were established by students of color who did not see opportunity – instead of saying that black students saw opportunity, but white supremacists restricted them from taking advantage. Still, DeVos is an important figure in shaping the American education system. Similarly, Mike Pence caused outrage at University of Notre Dame after he was invited to speak at their commencement ceremony in May. Students argued that Pence’s anti-LGBTQ+, anti-refugee and anti-healthcare policies are an insult to the high population of LGBTQ+ and low-income graduates. The university’s president argued that political leaders are necessary for our society and that Notre Dame has always been a supporter of open debate - an argument that has been used by colleges before. After conservatives protested a CUNY school’s invitation to an Arab-American activist, five CUNY professors defended the university’s need to “air and debate” issues. However, commencement ceremonies and guest speaker events at universities aren’t even organized in a way that allows debate – and an open debate can be held for much cheaper.
Commencement speeches are obviously part of the larger commencement ceremony. As you can guess, universities typically don’t choose a day that reels in thousands of relatives (and little siblings that are potential applicants) to host debates on racism, classism, and sexism. Speakers give their speech and while college students can boo and turn their backs, no one’s handing them the mic to question the speaker’s knowledge. It is also disrespectful to choose the day when college students’ main job is to reflect on their academic achievements and their newly lifted potential, to choose speakers that are hindering students’ potential or don’t understand what the students have endured. Guest speaker segments are usually run in similar fashion. Though guest speaker events tend to have a Q&A segment towards the end of the presentation and maybe a meet-and-greet afterwards, they’re still largely a platform for the speaker to take the majority of the time to explain and justify their view – giving only select students the opportunity “debate” the speaker at the end. Q&A sections also typically limit the time of each speaker so as many people can get a question in, making back-and-forth dialogue unfeasible.
Colleges argue that controversial guest speakers are necessary to debate issues, but guest speakers aren’t the only way to create dialogue on college campuses – especially considering they don’t come cheap. According to UC Berkeley alumni Glen Martin, Berkeley asked Berkeley College Republicans to pay over $6300 just for security for an appearance by Milo Yiannopoulos in February. According to Time, Rudy Giuliani received $75,000 to do a commencement speech at High Point University in 2005 and Katie Couric received $110,000 for a commencement speech at the University of Oklahoma in 2006. Speakers do often donate the money to charity, but some argued that colleges are doling out too much money for guest speakers, especially with colleges demanding increasing tuition from students. When speakers have ties to bigoted views, it makes the amount of money colleges are spending on them even more ridiculous. The amount of money spent on bigoted guest speakers can be used to establish a way for students to truly debate and discuss bigoted views – such as a political film festival or a debate between campus political organizations, both of which can certainly cost less than $100,000.
Commencement speeches and guest speakers are not the only ways to promote debate on controversial issues and frankly, are ineffective ways to do so. For students like James Allsup, leader of Washington State University’s College Republicans, or Peter Cvetanovic, a student at University of Nevada’s Reno campus, both of whom partook in the Charlottesville terror attack, speeches by bigoted leaders tell these students that it is okay to have bigoted views. They tell students that as a result of their bigoted views, they will be put on a pedestal – not that their views are dangerous and will be challenged. After Charlottesville, colleges need to reassure students that racist views will not be affirmed, by providing a space where these views can truly be combated and not just broadcasted.