protest movement is fomenting at Yale University, protesting the
selection of Sen. Hillary Clinton as
speaker. The idea of the band of conservative students is not to
disrupt the commencement proceedings, but to boycott at least that
part of it in which she will figure.
I am not privy to proposed arrangements. Presumably the conservative
protesters could linger at the gates of the old campus until Sen.
Clinton was through speaking. Or, much more disruptively, they could
walk away from their seats on the campus when she was introduced,
and return after she was done speaking. More destructively still,
they could do what the students at Brown did when Secretary of State
Henry Kissinger was the speaker, rising from their seats and turning
their backs on him until he was done.
Protests, in the Vietnam years, achieved a pretty high din. At Yale
in 1970 the entire commencement proceeding was canceled. That decision,
made by president Kingman Brewster, sometime law professor, reacted
to what I have called the skyjacker's leverage. The person who wishes
to take control of an airplane with 400 people in it finds it relatively
easy to do, since flying 500 miles per hour 35,000 feet above the
ground puts the odds for successful disruption in a single pair
of hands. On a college campus a half-dozen students, if that is
their design, can disrupt proceedings.
I am a longtime beneficiary of good manners and indulgence by student
bodies, having delivered over 30 commencement addresses. At almost
all, the students were good-natured about having to listen to a
conservative, as their terminal academic ordeal. The one exception
was, to say the least, colorful. At the University of California
at Riverside, seated on the dais before speaking, I looked down
on a cardboard box brought up and dropped on my lap by a dissenting
student. The wiggling betrayed a live presence; from the box, offloaded
from my lap, a small pig emerged and scampered over to the university
president, who was engaged in reading a Rhodes Scholarship award
to a proud young graduate, who needed now quickly to maneuver his
legs, since the pig was seeking a pissoir.
My own analysis of the Yale situation is that the invitation to
Mrs. Clinton is not a casus belli. Her formal credentials are resplendently
there: the degree from the law school, her distinguished career
in the school, and all that followed capped by her unambiguous election
as United States senator, but her formal qualifications hardly tell
the whole story of her selection as commencement speaker. Solzhenitsyn
was asked to speak at Harvard. That invitation was resented by some
undergraduates ("Solzhenitsyn, Warmonger!"); but not boycotted.
Students need to draw a line between speakers who oughtn't to have
been invited, and speakers to whom an invitation to highlight a
ceremonial event is outrageous, demanding full-frontal protest,
and others who are simply wrongheaded. A few years ago Dartmouth
College, unaccountably, invited Angela Davis to commemorate the
anniversary of coeducation. Ms. Davis had run for vice president
of the United States on the Communist Party ticket, and should be
invited to speak only to Menshevik groups who want to continue the
discussion interrupted in 1917.
Shortly after leaving Yale, I opposed a planned invitation to the
head of the U.S. Communist Party, Gus Hall, and won the most exhilarating
political victory of my life when the Yale Political Union, following
the speeches and discussion, voted to rescind the invitation to
him. That was worth high moral and intellectual exertion, but Mrs.
Clinton isn't in that category, for all that she has managed to
embody the most offensive characteristics of her husband's administration,
supreme among them her overdoing her commitment to stay with him
in sickness and in health. The health of the nation should have
interposed, somewhere, in her balance of loyalties.
So my vote would be to go with it, tolerate her appearance, and
be civil to the guest of one's alma mater.