With every choice of commencement speaker comes another chance for a university to empower some important speaker to fulfill the school’s final instructional function: shepherding a student’s transition into graduate by shaping and challenging their intellectual beliefs.
In selecting Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) to address the Class of 2017, Penn shocked no one by continuing a trend of having unabashedly liberal public figures preach to a very sympathetic audience. Look at the past five commencement speakers: Booker, Broadway mastermind Lin-Manuel Miranda, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, singer and 1999 College graduate John Legend and former Vice President Joe Biden. Not since 2010, when 1987 College graduate Jon Huntsman, Jr. spoke, has anyone with even moderately conservative views addressed Penn graduates at commencement.
This pattern hasn’t gone unnoticed. At a Feb. 1 University Council meeting, College Republicans representative Michael Moroz, a College and Wharton freshman, noted the “very little ideological diversity” between Penn’s past five commencement speaker. These choices threaten “to alienate students who hold reasonable but different beliefs from many on this campus.” While we would not champion any University effort to praise President Donald Trump, it hardly makes sense to exclude the viewpoints of half the country — and of the party that controls two branches of our national government — from school-sponsored discourse.
While previous speakers have included former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), it doesn’t take much creative thinking to see which types of speakers Penn prefers. While Gutmann kept a stately silence during Trump’s campaign, she spares no praise for Biden, whom the school just welcomed back as a professor.
Calling Biden “one of the greatest statesmen of our times,” Gutmann said he “has demonstrated a unique capacity to bring people together across divides and to craft constructive responses to some of the toughest and most important policy challenges of our day.”
While it’s no shock that Penn students remain solidly liberal and averse to Trump’s policies, the University as an institution does not advertise itself that way. Penn properly and routinely declines to weigh in on partisan political questions — including elections — repeating that Penn cannot and does not take such stances.
Only when Trump released an executive order temporarily barring immigrants from seven majority-Muslim countries did Gutmann publicly mention his name.
To a conservative student, it would be reasonable to assume that Penn has prioritized the concerns and requests of its liberal students. The selection of a highly partisan standing Democratic senator only reinforces this notion and isolates students who don’t subscribe to Booker’s brand of politics. Rather than challenging ideas on campus, Penn has simply catered to the vast majority of its students.
We do not contest that Booker is qualified — or even, considered purely on his own merits, appropriate — for the job. But beyond its potential to contribute to an apparent pattern of ideological favoritism that threatens to alienate conservative students, the choice of Senator Booker is unfortunate in its intellectual opportunity cost.
Commencement should, in our view, aim to broaden the horizons of departing students one last time – to be one last lesson before graduates leave the academic sphere.
It should, like any good lecture, provide us with a new perspective and teach us something we do not know. Booker is influential, intelligent and widely admired –true – but he simply does not bring to the graduation table much that is unfamiliar. Ask nine out of 10 graduating seniors to describe their views on politics, and you would likely hear a perspective and platform not far removed from Booker’s own.
In a time when the world of highly educated elites into which the Class of 2017 will be graduating is reeling from the consequences of its failure to see beyond its own insulated horizons, the choice of a speaker who serves more as echo than herald is particularly inopportune.
We do not ask for what has been decided to be undone, so we welcome Booker and hope that he will defy our expectations. In the future, however, we would like to see a roster of commencement speakers who align more closely with the high ideals of education and the unending struggle against our own self-polarization.