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The Politics of Commencement Addresses

Every year, a conservative group gripes about the number of liberals addressing graduates. How much does it matter?
by Jim Swift
May 19, 2022
The Politics of Commencement Addresses
Students arrive to Fenway Park for the Northeastern University Commencement in Boston on May 13, 2022. Despite spending half of their undergrad career in a pandemic, the class of 2022 made it through and celebrated with family and friends in Boston. (Photo by Erin Clark/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Were conservatives “shut out” from commencement speaking gigs this year? That’s what Young America’s Foundation, the conservative youth group, wants you to think.

Here’s spokeswoman Kara Zupkus in a blog post this week:

YAF’s Commencement Speakers Survey scrutinizes the commencement addresses given at the top 100 national universities as ranked by U.S. News and World Report. With 53 liberal speakers imparting progressive ideas and just 3 conservatives addressing graduates, the bias in this year’s commencement season is undeniable.

To disclose all of my biases here, I am a YAF alumnus myself, multiple times over. I went in high school and college in the early 2000s, and brought speakers to campus through YAF, including Dinesh D’Souza. I have lectured before YAF’s journalism program, the National Journalism Center. More recently, I’ve written opinion pieces practically begging YAF to stop associating with crazy people, like that same Dinesh D’Souza, now a Trump-pardoned felon who has a batshit crazy election truther documentary making him a lot of money—yet YAF stands by him.

A few things jump out at you when reading Zupkus’s blog post. First, although she writes that “the Class of 2022 will hear divisive speeches from many left-wing speakers,” the reality is that most of the speakers YAF classifies as “liberal” will probably not give very political speeches. Some will, of course, but most will presumably give normal commencement addresses—a few of them inspirational, with memorable stories; most of them boring and peppered with clichés; and probably very few of them stridently political.

Second, YAF’s survey of commencement speakers is limited to the top 100 national universities as ranked by U.S. News & World Report. Which is to say, the YAF survey leaves off America’s top liberal arts colleges—a separately ranked U.S. News category that includes not just Williams and Swarthmore and the like, but also the military academies (the Naval Academy, West Point, the Air Force Academy).

And YAF’s chosen methodology means the list also leaves off America’s many conservative colleges. There’s no Liberty, no Bob Jones, no Hillsdale on YAF’s list. No Grove City, Biola, Wheaton, or Taylor.

So despite the message YAF wants to get across, it’s not really as if the overwhelming majority of graduates across America this year are going to be captive audiences for left-wing rants. And plenty of conservative speakers will be giving commencement addresses, just not at the schools YAF looked at.

What bothers me most about Zupkus’s post is the insinuation that conservative commencement speakers were “shut out” from speaking.

It makes no sense.

Zupkus has surely studied Hayek, something that YAF preaches as gospel (you can take my word for it). So she knows that there is something Hayek calls “spontaneous order”—the order that arises (if you’ll forgive me for simplifying) when people organize and make their own decisions in their own self-interest. That is what has happened with American higher education. Yes, academia is overwhelmingly liberal. Conservative schools have grown up in reaction to that reality. None of the explicitly conservative schools has made the U.S. News top 100 (although several fine schools on that list are objectively conservative, such as Yeshiva and Brigham Young).

To YAF, this is bias.

But to me, as a YAF alumnus, this looks like the market working. For all the effort YAF puts into trying to get people to attend conservative colleges, even ones that have had trouble with accreditation, you just have to accept that the market of students may disagree with you. You probably haven’t heard of some of the schools on the list of what YAF considers “conservative colleges.” Again, that’s the market at work.

So if you are one of those people who might be offended by hearing from a liberal commencement speaker, you’ve got other options. You can decide ahead of time to attend one of the conservative schools sure to bring a commencement speaker you’ll be comfortable with. Or you can, ya know . . . just skip commencement.

Congratulations, class of 2022, and good luck out there.

Jim Swift

Jim Swift is a senior editor at The Bulwark.