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Within minutes of the University’s announcement that former mayor of New York City Michael R. Bloomberg would deliver Harvard’s commencement address for the class of 2014, expressions of disquiet emerged from the student body. The objections center on controversial security measures such as the “stop-and-frisk” policy and the surveillance of Muslim groups during Bloomberg’s time as mayor of New York City. Some contend that his defense of those policies makes the successful, philanthropic entrepreneur-turned-politician unfit to serve as Commencement Day speaker. As policy questions, these concerns are important, calling for careful discussions. As objections to a Commencement speaker, they are misplaced. We support the choice of Mayor Bloomberg as someone with valuable insight and experience to share with Harvard’s graduates.
There is no question that some of Bloomberg’s policies during his mayoral terms were and are controversial, even mistaken. Their burdens appear to fall too disproportionately on minorities to make the desired ends justifiable. However, those policies do not invalidate Michael Bloomberg and his credentials as a prospective speaker. Bloomberg has not only made large philanthropic donations over his lifetime, but also actively supported health initiatives, environmental programs, and public education. In a time of perpetual budget deficits, Bloomberg left New York City with a $2.4 billion surplus. University President Drew G. Faust rightly acknowledged those contributions in her praise of the speaker.
With controversy, too, comes experience. Michael Bloomberg is not a dull choice, and that reality is part of what makes him somebody worth listening to. Whether or not his policies were mistaken or even offensive to some of the student body, he can and will deliver a thought-provoking commencement address. It would be far more troubling if the University chose someone who would deliver a milquetoast speech, devoid of both substance and controversy. It would have been bizarre to exclude Oprah Winfrey as the Commencement speaker last year because some objected to her support for “pseudoscience.” Alan Greenspan’s selection was not about his monetary policy; opting for Clinton White House officials was not about NAFTA, welfare reform, or DOMA. It would be wrong to disinvite Bloomberg on the basis of one part of his career.
In choosing a former politician, the University almost by default alienates a portion of the graduating class. Those who disagree with or face adverse effects from the politician’s positions may naturally object or feel excluded by the choice. This type of reaction is unavoidable and understandable, yet it cannot be used to justify the exclusion of speakers who have political affiliations, lest we miss an important range of experiences.
With a large portion of the graduating class interested in public health, philanthropy, and politics, Bloomberg has the potential to deliver a meaningful speech on issues that the audience cares about. The man is not solely defined by his controversial policies. Rather than focusing on a handful of programs, students ought to focus on the value of Michael Bloomberg as Commencement speaker—the capacity in which the University has chosen him. He is a contentious political figure, but he certainly can enlighten and challenge the Class of 2014.
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