A conservative’s guide to opposing commencement speakers

The bright and tree-lined road leading into the University of Alabama in Huntsville’s main entrance is named for something its students should always pursue: Knowledge.

Unfortunately, a few of them seem to have already left campus along a dimmer, narrower route: Ignorance.

A graduate of UAH recently launched a petition to prevent Senator Jeff Sessions, R-Mobile, from delivering the commencement address at the school’s spring graduation ceremony.

“Senator Jeff Sessions has time and time again voted counter to higher education and rights for all of the populace of these United States,” reads the petition launched on the ever-annoying Change.org. “His voting record has shown a disregard for the funding of public education in this great nation while also voting counter to programs that support the underprivileged and vulnerable.”

The petition then references the senator’s low ratings from organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union – a badge of honor in these parts – before linking him to Donald Trump’s repeated “inflammatory remarks towards women, the disabled, and immigrants.”

The petition has more than 650 supporters, including UAH students, graduates, and even faculty members who left comments like these:

  • “As a graduate of UAH and member of the extended UAH community since the 1970s I hate to see the school align with such an anti-science obstacle to a just society as Jeff Sessions has proven himself to be. Freedom of speech is one thing, but to have Sessions address a community of scholars from all walks of life on their special day is an insult and a shame.”
  • “I view this as a slap in the face as a student that (sic) is graduating this term. Having this man speech (sic) at our commencement is mind boggling.”
  • “As a part-time faculty member at UAH, I cannot fathom why you would ask such a backward thinking persons (sic) to speak at commencement. Shame on you!”

Alas, I hope those last two aren’t studying or teaching English.

Nevertheless, as misguided as their cause may be, I’m not entirely unsympathetic to their desire to oppose their commencement speaker’s beliefs. You see, I was once in their shoes.

When I was a student at Spring Hill College in the late 1990s, the Jesuit fathers decided one year to have the commencement address delivered by one of the school’s distinguished graduates – Colman McCarthy. In case the name doesn’t ring a bell these days, McCarthy was once a well-known political columnist who was known as “the liberal conscience of The Washington Post.” As if that wasn’t enough to draw this young conservative’s attention, he was primarily a vocal advocate for what I believe is a particularly destructive ideology – pacifism.

McCarthy actually got his start in both journalism and pacifist advocacy at Spring Hill, writing a column in the school newspaper called “Rub of the Green.” He later said that his articles were mainly “aimed at Army ROTC on campus [which] had fancy names for its courses like ‘Military Science’ and ‘Leadership Skills,’ but they were training people to follow orders and kill.”

Without getting too far off topic – pacifism is futile, unjust, and often criminal in practice – I used my conservative-themed column in the same school newspaper to attack McCarthy’s pacifist beliefs.

I didn’t attack the man. I didn’t attack the college for inviting him, and I certainly didn’t say, or even think, that he should be disinvited. When McCarthy came, I sat silently along the Avenue of the Oaks and listened courteously, but no doubt uncomfortably, to his speech.

I had my say and then McCarthy had his. That’s the way things ought to be in a liberal society that values and protects free and open thought.

Sadly, that sort of thing seems passé on campus these days. Shouting, shaming, and threatening the opposition into silence is the fashion, and it should worry us all. We’re entrusting the future of our country to the coming generation, and I’m not sure which road they wish to lead us down, Knowledge or Ignorance. Time will tell.

Meanwhile, if the petition’s signers are seriously worried about the ability of Sessions to spoil their liberal echo chamber, they should consider what I remember from McCarthy’s speech at Spring Hill.

Not a word.