Dear Disinvited Commencement Speakers, HBCUs Don’t Owe You Anything

We don’t owe you anything.

We don’t owe you our joy.

We don’t owe you admission to our ceremonies.

We don’t owe you our celebrations nor our milestones.

We don’t owe you honorary degrees.

We don’t owe you awards.

We don’t owe you standing ovations.

We don’t owe you photo-ops nor platforms.

We don’t owe you access to our spaces.

We don’t owe you microphones nor stages.

We don’t owe you our complicity.

We don’t owe you forced smiles and handshakes.

We don’t owe you the time of our cousins and grandmothers and aunties and nephews.

We don’t owe y’all a seat at our tables.

We don’t owe you the opportunity to get on stage and talk at us.

We don’t owe you our power nor influence.

I recently read an article on HBCU Digest entitled “For HBCUs, Today’s Disinvited Speaker Could Be Tomorrow’s Legislative Loss” that engulfed me in mixed feelings. The following two paragraphs, in particular, struck me.

Autumn wrote:

“If their HBCU education has done its job, students are not just armed with degrees, but armed with a spirit of activism and a desire to make a change by the time they ready to cross the graduation stage. Protests are a hallmark of all of their training, and, frankly, a reflection of the current climate of the country. But protests, or the threat of protest, cannot be the reason a campus president decides not to engage in the appropriate level of government relations to advance the institution so that it will stand even stronger once these students have crossed the stage.

Today’s college president has to be the top government relations officer, the top fundraiser, the chief marketing officer and the top student affairs official — simultaneously. And, since many of our schools sit in Red states with Republican leadership, and since the current climate seems to provoke blind protest of all things Republican in order to maintain one’s black card, it is incumbent upon leaders to communicate more effectively with students, faculty and other campus stakeholders about the motivation for inviting individuals to campus, and acknowledge the right of individuals to disagree while heralding the need for intelligent discourse even in the face of opposition.”

I agree that college presidents have an overwhelming amount of responsibility in operating their institutions. I also agree that leaders have to communicate more effectively with students, faculty, and stakeholders about why individuals with starkly different ideologies and viewpoints are invited on campus. Right now there is an uncomfortable lack of transparency from university leaders when it comes to their relationship with the new White House administration.

I highly disagree with the overall tone of the piece.

It suggests that HBCUs must prioritize playing the political game, cautiously abiding by the “don’t bite the hand that feeds you” idiom, and that students are protesting haphazardly.

People with differing viewpoints should be invited to college campuses to engage in meaningful dialogue. During commencement speeches is not when this should happen. Commencement speeches are meant for students to hear a message that is profound, inspirational, and enduring, and the speaker should move students to pursue a life consumed with activism and purpose. It is commonsensical that the speaker should not instigate frustration and disapproval, creating a barrier between his or her message and the audience. Inviting a person in as the commencement speaker in order to give that person access and power, or to send him or her a message of allyship in order to influence his or her decision-making, is disrespectful to the graduating class.

We don’t owe them that.



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