We've always liked General Colin L. Powell. As chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and throughout his distinguished military career, he has been an impressive role model of both achievement and moral integrity.
We were not surprised when Powell's inflexible, party-line stance on maintaining the ban on homosexuals in the military was made evident--he is, after all, a career soldier steeped in army rhetoric. But we were disappointed. Powell was one of the few heroic figures of the Reagan Bush era (and one of the few not indicted). As chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Powell could have done the right thing and helped President Clinton eradicate this pointless discrimination. Instead, Powell will go down in history as one more military leader who didn't get it.
We are mostly disappointed in the Harvard administration. While Powell is certainly an inspiring and thoughtful speaker, we wonder how inspiring he will seem to those students denied participation in ROTC because of their sexual orientation. Commencement speeches are a good time to preach the value of serving your country, but Powell would deny that right to hundreds of students. By lending the special imprimatur of Harvard to Powell, the University's commitment to non-discrimination against homosexuals might not be called into doubt, but its sensitivity certainly is.
Powell is, of course, entitled to his opinion and in other circumstances (immediately after the Gulf War, for example) might have been an excellent choice for Commencement speaker. But in a year when he is in the forefront of a movement to keep a regressive, discriminatory policy that contradicts Harvard's own stance on the issue. Powell was not the best choice Harvard could have made.
This isn't an issue of free speech. No one is denying Powell's right to speak in public--in fact, we'd enjoy hearing Powell speak here on another occasion. But we question the Wisdom of the invitation. Powell has no specific right to speak at commencement, any more than we do. It is the administration that decides who to invite, taking many factors into consideration. One of those must certainly be achievement. But one of those must also be the consideration that Commencement is a time to rejoice in the achievement of all, not argue over the prejudice of a few. The invitation of Powell has achieved the latter and will prevent the former.
It is unlikely that Powell's invitation will be rescinded. Come June, all protest marches aside, thousands, of people will sit in Tercentary Theater and listen to Powell speaks. We will be among them, carrying large, pink triangles.