Former Princeton president William Bowen *58 and former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean ’57 found themselves in similar positions last weekend, filling in at collegiate commencement ceremonies in place of distinguished speakers who withdrew after student protests. Both alumni made headlines, though for somewhat different reasons.
Bowen, addressing graduates at Haverford College May 18, criticized the students who fought to keep Robert Birgeneau, former chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, from speaking at commencement. Birgeneau, who came under fire for his response to student unrest at Berkeley in 2011, chose not to come to Haverford after about 50 students and faculty signed a letter urging him to publicly apologize for his actions. In Bowen’s view, he should have come anyway — and students should have sought “a genuine discussion.”
Bowen cited the example of George Shultz ’42, who received an honorary degree at Princeton in 1973 while he was treasury secretary in the Nixon administration. Some students protested by turning their backs, Bowen said, but in most cases, they were respectful. “Princeton emerged from this mini-controversy more committed than ever to honoring both the right to protest in proper ways and the accomplishments of someone with whose views on some issues many disagreed,” he said.
Reaction to Bowen’s address was mostly positive: The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the Haverford audience gave Bowen a standing ovation, and Washington Post guest columnist Jonathan Adler called the remarks a welcome response to the spring’s “disinvitation season.”
The same afternoon at Rutgers University’s football stadium, Kean spoke in place of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who had withdrawn following student and faculty protests of her involvement in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Bush administration’s counterterrorism efforts. Kean, a Republican who co-chaired the bipartisan 9/11 Commission, also urged civil discourse in his remarks. “We need to work hard at understanding each other,” he said, according to the Inquirer. “Otherwise it’s me on CNN, you on Fox, and never the twain shall meet.”
At the same time, Kean kept his comments brief, joking that a graduation speaker was akin to the body at an Irish wake — “necessary, but you don’t want it to intrude too much on what else is going on.”
Kean was hailed for his diplomacy and generosity: He donated his $35,000 speaking fee to start a scholarship fund in honor of Eric LeGrand, a paralyzed former football player who graduated from Rutgers on Sunday and shared his inspiring story in a speech to his classmates.