Barack Obama, Clarence Thomas, and Michael Bloomberg all walked on to a college campus.
No, that’s not the start of a bad joke. Rutgers University, Hillsdale College, and the University of Michigan chose the three men as their respective commencement speakers.
While the liberal two-term President, conservative Supreme Court justice, and Independent former New York City mayor may hold conflicting opinions about the world, their addresses to graduating seniors tapped into surprisingly similar themes: political correctness gone awry and the dangers of limiting free speech.
Obama, who spoke to Rutgers students on May 15, chided them for their role in pushing Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice to drop out as the Rutgers commencement speaker in 2014. Students protested the school’s choice of Rice, pointing to her involvement in the Iraq War.
“The notion that this community or the country would be better served by not hearing from a former Secretary of State, or shutting out what she had to say – I believe that’s misguided,” Obama said. “I don’t think that’s how democracy works best, when we’re not even willing to listen to each other,” he continued.
Bloomberg, too, called out student activists in his speech to the University of Michigan on April 30. He voiced his perception that college students are overly sensitive and shouldn’t need safe spaces to deal with difficult situations.
“The fact that some university boards and administrations now bow to pressure and shield students from these ideas through ‘safe spaces,’ ‘code words,’ and ‘trigger warnings’ is, in my view, a terrible mistake,” he said. “The whole purpose of college is to learn how to deal with difficult situations – not run away from them.”
Thomas’ speech mostly focused on individual responsibility. But even the legendarily quiet justice couldn’t resist the chance to take a swipe at PC-culture.
“Do not hide your faith and your beliefs under a bushel basket, especially in this world that seems to have gone mad with political correctness,” he said.
Thomas also appeared to take aim at critical individuals.
“Sadly today [it seems] that grievances rather than personal conduct are the means of elevation,” Thomas reflected.
The speakers remarks come on the heels of unrest that swept colleges over the past year. On dozens of campuses, racial tension and protests coupled with demands set by students for the removal of administrators whom students felt let them down. At the University of Missouri, and elsewhere, students succeeded in forcing the resignation of school leaders.
On the other hand, students took part into public skirmishes that painted them as unwilling to listen to dissenting opinions. At Yale University, for example, a group of students confronted an administrator shouting expletives and demanding an apology after they disagreed with statements he made.
Student-led protests on campuses, however, don’t come unprovoked. At Yale, for example, university officials recently decided to retain the name of a slaver-owner on one of its 12 residential colleges Calhoun College.The decision essentially bulldozed calls by students and faculty to change the name.
And at Missouri, racial epithets were thrown at the black president of the Missouri Students Association while he was walking on campus. It took the university nearly a week to respond to the incident, further exacerbating feelings of unimportance from minority students.