Across the nation, campus protests against national speakers are becoming a facade for censoring differing opinions. The latest epidemic of pressuring college and university administrations into cancelling invitations to commencement speakers has arrived at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Students at Rutgers University, Smith College, and Haverford College have succeeded at pressuring influential leaders from addressing their commencement. The victims of these protests include former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund, and former UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau. Now at Harvard, these protests are even taking aim at our own alumnus.
More than 140 alumni and students are petitioning the school to rescind its convocation speaking invitation to Colorado State Senator and Education School alumnus Michael C. Johnston. Organizers of the petition argued that “Senator Johnston embraces a vision of education reform that relies heavily on test-based accountability while weakening the due process protections of teachers, a vision that we believe ultimately harms students and communities.”
I agree that our teachers are underappreciated, under-resourced, and often scapegoated. But silencing Johnston is hardly the answer.
As a soon-to-be School of Education graduate and Coloradan, I am proud of my colleagues’ activism, but disappointed in their shortsightedness and their attempt to undercut someone who has made significant contributions to improving education in my home state of Colorado.
Johnston came to the School of Education after spending two years teaching high school English in rural Mississippi with Teach for America, and later earned his law degree from Yale. In 2005, he was the founding principal of the Mapleton Expeditionary School of the Arts, on the outskirts of Denver, which embarked on a pioneering district-wide transformation into small schools.
In 2008, President Obama, then running for election, cited the school as a model for sending 100 percent of its graduating seniors to college. It was a considerable feat, since many of its students lived below the poverty line and learned English as a second language. Since joining the Colorado State Senate in 2009, Johnston has led initiatives to improve educational access for undocumented students, addressing inequity in school financing—pushing Colorado to the forefront on the national discourse on educational reform.
Before being named convocation speaker late last month, few of my classmates at Harvard had ever heard of Johnston. Likewise, most students were unaware of any protest until word broke last weekend. On Monday, Ed School Dean James E. Ryan sent all students a letter responding to the protest petition, reaffirming his support of Johnston while cautioning against a disturbing trend across college campuses of silencing opposing views in the name of social justice.
“The idea that rescinding the invitation to Senator Johnston would underscore our values as an institution and community seems to me precisely backwards, as I cannot think of a more damaging blow to an academic institution than to withdraw an invitation to an alumnus to speak because some disagree with the speaker’s views,” Ryan wrote.
Silencing someone is not the way to express one’s opposition, particularly when the bill Johnston co-sponsored represents a direction that legislatures across the country are taking—holding principals and teachers accountable. For those who oppose this kind of legislation, the best tactic is to hear from those like Johnston who advocate it, to understand their arguments and then to rebut them.
If the protesters looked closely at Johnston’s record, they would actually see an ally in the battle to improving American schools. In addition to his work at the high school, Johnston was the sponsor of Amendment 66 that would have, among other things, provided considerable funding to provide Colorado teachers and principals with the resources and leadership training to be more effective educators. Voters rejected the amendment last fall.
Fundamentally, these protests strike at the heart of our higher education institutions and question the type of values we are cultivating among our graduates. Colleges are sanctuaries for diverging opinions and laboratories to test the strength and rigor of our ideas, albeit respectfully. Debate is one of the hallmarks of academic freedom and an integral fabric of our democracy.
Personally, I find the greatest growth when I intentionally override my internal resistance and listen to people who make me uncomfortable and challenge me. It never dawned on me that, as a man, I could learn so much from attending a lecture on Insights and Experience from Women in Power or listening to Senator John McCain and gaining a newfound appreciation of his lifelong service to our country (even though I voted against him).
Ed School students and alumni would gain more from listening to and engaging with Johnston than by trying to shut him up. Negotiating with civility with those with whom we disagree is a critical skill I would hope any aspiring educator would seek to master. Can we dare to venture outside our perspective without feeling disloyal or insecure?
Staging a protest on the eve of a convocation speech is both an attempt at embarrassing the speaker and shaming our institution. I welcome Senator Johnston to challenge us and to inspire us. As future educators, let’s set an example of civility and dignified discourse that our future students can emulate.
Abdulaziz Said is a master’s candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.