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The Disappearance of Conservative Commencement Speakers

Former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice recently pulled out of giving the commencement address at Rutgers University after students protested. Rice was just the latest would-be commencement speaker to face criticism and withdraw. The head of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde, bowed out of speaking at Smith College after students there protested. Robert Birgeneau, who was chancellor at the University of California, Berkeley when police used batons to break up an Occupy protest, declined to attend the graduation ceremony at Haverford College, where he was set to receive an honorary degree. Students and faculty had objected to the visit.

Conservatives have complained that they’ve been singled out, leaving only non-politicians and Democrats to offer a final word to newly minted college graduates. Based on commencement address data from the last two years, they’re right.

For the 2013 and 2014 commencement seasons, I looked up the guest commencement speaker at the top 30 universities and the top 30 liberal arts colleges as rated by U.S. News and World Report. In cases where there was no guest commencement speaker, I took the guest baccalaureate, class day or senior day speaker. In all cases, I noted if the speakers were American political figures, and if so their party affiliations. I counted people like the news anchor Chris Matthews, who worked for Democratic politicians, as a political figure. I didn’t count people like the author Toni Morrison, who is a Democrat but has never worked in a political office. I also only counted lead speakers, not recipients of honorary degrees.

As it turns out, I couldn’t find a single clearly aligned Republican political figure who spoke at any of these schools in the past two years. (Two tables showing all the speakers are at the bottom of this post.) Twenty-five Democrats spoke. Eleven Democrats gave the main commencement address among the top 30 universities, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and former Mississippi governor and current Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus. At the top 30 liberal arts schools, it was 14 Democrats.

There were two in-between cases: Former Republican senator Chuck Hagel, now the defense secretary in the Obama administration, who has essentially been disowned by the Republican Party, spoke at West Point; and Michael Bloomberg, the independent and former New York City mayor, spoke at Harvard University and Williams College this year.

Things were somewhat different when Republicans held the presidency, and there was a White House full of GOP figures available to speak. Ten years ago, when President George W. Bush was still relatively well liked, the ideological spread of commencement speakers was more balanced.

But even then, there were few conservative speakers. It was moderate Republicans like Supreme Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, Sens. Dick LugarJohn Warner and John McCain and General Colin Powell speaking at the top 30 universities. Among the top 30 liberal arts schools, more conservative Republicans spoke at military schools like the U.S. Naval Academy and West Point, but beyond those, the only Republican to be found was moderate Congressman Mike Castle.

In an increasingly polarized political atmosphere, the current lack of Republican commencement speakers at top universities and colleges makes a lot of sense; a decent number of people, including Democrats, don’t like to hear differing views. On elite college campuses, where supporters of Democrats outnumber Republicans, the lack of conservative speakers isn’t surprising.

Commencement Speakers at Top 30 U.S. News & World Report Colleges


Commencement Speakers at Top 30 U.S. News & World Report Universities


Harry Enten was a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.