News reports on college commencement season previously consisted of anodyne lists of the famous and near-famous appearing on campuses across the country, with occasional sound bites of their remarks. Now there appears to be a media watch list to see who will be the next high-profile speaker to decline to appear in cap and gown rather than address restive graduates angry at what the honorary degree recipient represents. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, still tarred by the Iraq war, chose not to give her planned remarks at Rutgers University. Smith College students seem not to have anything against International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde personally, but blame the organization she leads for various ills inflicted on other parts of the world—and the ensuing controversy over her remarks kept Lagarde away. Students at Haverford College demanded Robert Birgeneau apologize for the deployment of campus police against university students protesting tuition increases and budget cuts during his time as chancellor of Berkeley. He, too, chose to cancel.
As the pace has picked up in recent years of commencement no-shows, the invited speakers have provided a familiar magnanimous refrain: Commencement is a time of celebration for students and their families, and we do not wish to be a distraction. Of course, with that statement and their decision not to appear, they provided further distraction, and certainly much more media attention than if they had actually attended commencement. When Rutgers invited Rice, the university knew that any high-level George W. Bush administration official remains controversial due to the Iraq war, as did she. Presumably that would not have been the subject of her address, and her distinguished career provides much motivational material for graduates.