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Harvard Law School Professor Urges Princeton Grads to Become Ambassadors for Higher Education

Randall Kennedy addresses graduating seniors at Princeton University's 269th Baccalaureate service. Photo: Denise Applewhite, Princeton University Office of Communications.
Randall Kennedy addresses graduating seniors at Princeton University’s 269th Baccalaureate service. Photo: Denise Applewhite, Princeton University Office of Communications.

Harvard University Law School Professor Randall Kennedy called on Princeton University graduates Sunday to become ambassadors for higher education.

“Being an ambassador for higher education means embracing opportunities to advance the best versions of collegiate and university life,” he said.

A graduate and former trustee of Princeton University, Kennedy was the keynote speaker at the interfaith Baccalaureate service for graduating seniors. The service at the Princeton University Chapel is one of the school’s oldest traditions.

Kennedy told students their individual circumstances will shape what being a good ambassador for higher education means.

“For those of you who become politicians, it might mean being especially attuned to thwarting policies bad for colleges and universities while championing policies those that are beneficial. For those of you who become moguls it might mean making colleges and universities the principal objects of your philanthropic ambitions,” he said. “For everyone — lawyers, physicians, teachers, journalists, architects, engineers, house-husbands and housewives, for everyone — there are things to do. Keeping informed, making governmental officials know that you care about their decisions regarding higher education, sharing your impressions and ideas with the stewards of our campuses, contributing what you can afford to the upkeep and independence of our schools.”

He said the ambassadors for higher education are needed because of  the importance of colleges and universities and the urgent need for support at many schools.

“Colleges and universities are essential to our culture, our politics, our economy. They provide the most far-reaching settings within which scholars master canons of understanding and pass on to peers and students the results of their labors,” he said. “More than any other institutions in our society, they facilitate explorations of the most recondite subjects, bring to bear expertise on urgent, vexing problems, and encourage grappling with timeless questions: What are the ingredients of a life well spent? Why would a benevolent God allow children to suffer? Is there a relationship between knowledge and morality? What are the essentials of a just society?”

Problems that threaten the health of colleges and universities should concern everyone because of the fundamental role the institutions play in society, he said, lamenting the decrease in financial support for colleges, especially state schools.

“What happens at public institutions should be of concern to us for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that Princeton resides within an interdependent ecosystem of colleges and universities. From other schools, we recruit talent and to them we send our outstanding graduates. Deficiencies in the system of higher education do not stay put — they are infectious, posing dangers to the system as a whole,” he said.

Colleges and universities are also facing a rising loss in confidence regarding the value of the humanities, Kennedy said.

“At the same time, they face an ever-increasing burden of governmental regulation that undercuts their autonomy while encouraging the growth of expensive bureaucracies,” he said. “Increasingly, mounting costs are putting all too many schools beyond the financial capabilities of students able to perform brilliantly, but unable to pay the bills.”

Colleges and universities also face problems of their own creation by trying too hard to be cool to overcome a lack of confidence in their attractiveness, he said.

“Illustrative is the pathetic fawning that shows itself in this very season as colleges and universities book celebrities as speakers at graduation ceremonies,” he said. “One will not find academics handing out statuettes at the Academy Awards.  But one will find Hollywood’s denizens addressing academic audiences on even the grandest days of the collegiate calendar.”

Kennedy, who served as a law clerk for Justice Thurgood Marshall of the United States Supreme Court, has written several books and is the author of the controversial bestseller “Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word,” His scholarship focuses on the intersection of racial conflict and legal institutions. He told students Sunday that some of the difficulties faced by other schools also burden Princeton, but to a much lesser degree.

“(Princeton) bestows upon students a remarkable and admirable community, one that is more welcoming to more different sorts of people than ever before in its history. I feel called upon to say this expressly because of the vilification to which Princeton and many universities and colleges have been subjected,” he said.

Kennedy then addressed criticisms that Princeton and its peers are afflicted by political correctness and that some ideas are systematically repressed.

“There probably are episodes of ideological suppression amidst the many hundreds of thousands of students, professors, and administrators who occupy campuses, passionately propounding certain beliefs while battling others,” he said. “These episodes, however, are outliers. They are not characteristic and they receive little backing from authoritative policy. Nowhere in America will one find environments more open to disputation than campuses like this one, the common home of Peter Singer and Robert George, Russell Nieli and Eddie Glaude, the Black Justice League and the Princeton Open Campus Coalition.”

Princeton is not immune to social ills, he said, but it is also not a den of racist iniquity, sexist degradation or class oppression.

He asked graduates to imagine, with respect to race, gender, sexual orientation, the distribution of resources, the environment, the resolution of conflict, and any number of other volatile subjects, that the ethos that is dominant at Princeton magically would become the prevailing ethos of the United States.

“Would this country, would our world, be better off?” he asked. “My answer is an unequivocal affirmative. We would be better off, because the dominant spirit animating Princeton is one that loves learning, venerates excellence, champions questioning, tolerates complexity, embraces empathy, and abhors tyranny.”

Princeton University supports academic freedom and freedom of expression, he said, and the school has adopted a statement that declares that debate at Princeton “may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the community to be offensive, unwise, immoral or wrong-headed.” The school, according to the statement, has a responsibility “not only to promote a lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation, but also to protect that freedom when others attempt to restrict it.”

Krystal Knapp

Krystal Knapp is the founding editor of Planet Princeton. She can be reached via email at editor AT planetprinceton.com. Send all letters to the editor and press releases to that email address.

  • Robert Dana

    Interesting focus. It’s not like colleges and universities are in great need. Many – like Princeton and Harvard – are swimming in cash. In order to lure students, they spend a considerable amount of it on cappuccino bars, aerobic studios and climbing walls. Some have set aside whole departments and majors where students can study themselves.

    But come to think of it, college & university campuses are sorely lacking in one important
    respect. The First Amendment no longer exists there!

    Too bad the speaker, whose name I already forgot, didn’t make that observation and call for immediate reform.

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