Harvard Law Professor Randall Kennedy encourages the Class of 2016—and Occidental itself—to nurture intellectual and moral qualities that will lead to informed debate
In a year that will be remembered for student activism nationwide, current campus controversies about the appropriateness of some memorials to historical figures tainted by racism "are not trivial distractions but worthwhile projects," Harvard Law School Professor Randall Kennedy said at Occidental's 134th Commencement ceremony May 15.
Such disputes "show that major institutions in American life, including our colleges and universities, are paying unprecedented and long-overdue attention to the sensibilities of historically marginalized groups," Kennedy told the Class of 2016, families, and friends gathered in Remsen Bird Hillside Theater. "That is a profoundly good development."
Debates over whether Yale's Calhoun College—named after former Sen. John C. Calhoun (1782–1850), a defender of slavery—or Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School, named after the U.S. president who expanded segregation in the federal civil service, demonstrate the substance and power of symbolism, said Kennedy, a prize-winning author and legal scholar who specializes in race relations.
To defenders of segregation half a century ago, "objecting to being told to sit in the front or the back of the bus on the basis of your race was the privileging of 'mere' symbolism—after all, if you got to your destination on time did it really matter substantially where you sat?" he said.
Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., and other civil rights activists "were heroically willing to risk their all to challenge the racial etiquette of the Jim Crow system because they rightly perceived those norms to be racial insults that constituted an affront to human dignity," Kennedy said. "Mr. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes was right: 'We live by symbols.'"
In assessing these debates, it is important to recognize that people will interpret symbols differently and that there are many different interests to balance, he said. Kennedy also suggested that the ongoing conversation about what he called the "dilemmas of memorialization" could be usefully expanded beyond historical figures who are white men.
As one example, Kennedy cited the portrait of pioneering legal activist and publisher Myra Bradwell (1831-1894), whose portrait hangs at Harvard Law School. Initially refused admission to the Illinois bar because of her gender by state and federal courts, her activism helped open the doors to women to practice law.
But "while Bradwell never explicitly stated that Jewish attorneys should be denied admission to the Chicago Bar Association, she made it clear she had little use for Jewish lawyers," he noted. "Should her portrait be removed?"
"I generally favor addition over subtraction," Kennedy said. "I typically prefer adding commemoration of those heretofore neglected as opposed to erasing names or removing monuments. … Outstanding people, worthy of emulation, can rightly be seen as heroines and heroes despite saying and doing grievously hurtful things."
Kennedy's selection as Commencement speaker was itself the subject of much debate in the weeks leading up to graduation. "For those who are critical of the choice, the issue is not about Professor Kennedy's standing as a distinguished scholar," President Jonathan Veitch noted in a campuswide email April 26. Objections arose because Kennedy was one of 19 prominent Harvard Law professors who co-signed a letter critical of the portrayal of a sexual assault case involving two Harvard Law students in last year's documentary The Hunting Ground (which also featured a number of Occidental students and faculty).
"While I understand the critiques raised around the issues of race and sexual assault that have been the subject of so much pain on our campus, it is equally important that we remain receptive to a free and open dialogue that includes a wide variety of perspectives," Veitch wrote. "To reconsider would send the wrong message to our students as they go out into the world and take up their role as public citizens."
Kennedy—who met with Oxy faculty, students, parents, and staff the day before Commencement—concluded his remarks with the hope that colleges will nurture "intellectual and moral qualities that will consistently give rise to wise decision-making on our campuses and beyond. Those qualities include cosmopolitan empathy; a yearning to learn; a love for questioning; patience with ambiguity; an enthrallment with excellence; revulsion against tyranny; and always a willingness to consider the possibility of being wrong.
"Because Occidental College strives to inspire and sustain these qualities, it deserves our gratitude, our admiration, and our support," he said. "Its investment in the Class of 2016 and its investment in the classes that will follow offer reason for hope, even amidst the many troubles that confound us." To the seniors he added: "Thank you for listening."