MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. It's commencement season. You might be headed to one this weekend. And while you're probably most concerned with seeing your loved one get that piece of paper, these days many students and faculty are showing new interest in who offers those often banal but still widely noted commencement remarks.
Recently, student and faculty protests pushed two prominent commencement speakers to withdraw from commencements they had been planning to address. Christine LaGarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, withdrew from giving the commencement address at Smith College, in Massachusetts, after some students there circulated a petition saying they felt that her presence would imply endorsement of the policies of the IMF. That came after former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice withdrew from plans to deliver Rutgers University's commencement address after objections were raised there. Here's one student speaking at a campus protest against Secretary Rice.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: When you think of a commencement speaker, you think of someone who you can look up to. This woman has committed so many crimes. You know, she has not even been put to trial. So how can we look up to someone who is responsible for the deaths of so many?
MARTIN: We wanted to talk more about this. And we were particularly interested in what these two incidents have to say - or whether they have anything to say about the nature of activism on campuses today, and whether this is a sign of healthy debate or an intolerance of it. So we've invited two college student leaders. Donald Coughlan is chairman of Rutgers College Republicans in the New Jersey College Republicans. That group protested the protests against former Secretary Rice. Andrew Sowders is the legislative director of the College Democrats at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Welcome to both of you. Thank you both for coming.
ANDREW SOWDERS: Thank you.
DONALD COUGHLAN: Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: OK, so, Donald Coughlan, let me start with you. I understand that you were very disappointed that Dr. Rice withdrew as your commencement speaker. First, could you just briefly tell us - and I know you're not speaking for the group - but what - we heard a little bit of their reasoning, and what's yours?
COUGHLAN: We were very disappointed that Condoleezza Rice would not be the commencement speaker. And we started talking about it more on Monday because the reality was that a lot of people became afraid to voice their opinions because professors were sending out emails encouraging students to protest Condoleezza Rice. And the student protesters damaged university property and committed vandalism in some of the classroom buildings.
MARTIN: So she said that she did not want to disrupt the celebratory nature of the day and then become a distraction. Do you think that she made a good decision or not?
COUGHLAN: We would have liked to see her, though we do respect her decision. We think that she would have been welcomed by almost everyone in attendance. But the reality is, it would have been a little bit more heated than it, you know, will be otherwise with a different speaker.
MARTIN: So tell me, Donald, what - this was one issue that grabbed students' attention. Is this, overall, the kind of thing that the students tend to get interested in? Do you think it was her as her particular profile and her biography that attracted this? Or generally, would you say your students are interested in these kinds of issues? Or what kinds of issues tend to engage them?
COUGHLAN: Students are interested in issues that directly affect them. This was an issue that affected every senior at our school, as well as many other students because they attend the graduation to see their friends graduate. And she's a very high-profile figure with a lot of people who are very inspired by her, and then a small group who was not inspired by her and protested her. And because it had a direct impact on everyone at the graduation, that's what brought a lot of people on both sides of the issue to voice their opinions.
MARTIN: So Andrew, Greensboro has a strong civil rights legacy. It's known for the lunch counter sit-ins, for example. What are the kinds of things that the students there tend to be engaged by?
SOWDERS: Well, our students are increasingly engaged in state issues. We're constantly engaged in campus issues, especially in terms of the budget and how our tuition money is allocated. But with the recent Republican takeover the state - Gov. Pat McCrory and the Republican sweep of 2010 - we've become much more engaged in state issues in terms of Medicare expansion, LGBT rights. We had Amendment One a couple of years ago that got a lot of attention. So mostly issues that really affect us and affect our friends and people that we can relate to in our personal lives.
MARTIN: Does that legacy of Greensboro's activism, is that something that the students there care about? Does this matter to them?
SOWDERS: Many it does. Many, you know, it doesn't. Some may not know the history of the city. But for the ones that it does, you can really feel that spirit through the campus and through the city. And it really does have a dominating theme over the campus.
MARTIN: Well, what tends to get people going? I mean, like, how - I mean, obviously, social media's one way that people get organized these days, Andrew. What tends - how does it tend to work?
SOWDERS: Well, it is funny. With more communications and social media it's actually tending to be harder to reach people and get them motivated. Just 'cause...
MARTIN: Really? How come?
SOWDERS: Well, I think there are so many different things that divide people's attention much like they talk about with cable television and being so many options. So it tends to be difficult to get people interested. Plus, you have a lot of students who are working two, three, four jobs trying to just make ends meet and stay in school. But social media does help get in touch with people and get them motivated. Word-of-mouth really works. It really - mostly, there's a snowball effect on issues that we care about.
MARTIN: Donald, what about you? What tends to get people motivated? And it's interesting to note that your - both of your organizations are relatively small. Andrew, your organization only has about 15 core members. And, Donald's, your organization - what? - has about 20, you know, core members? But - so, Donald, do you agree with Andrew that it's kind of - actually, even despite all the social media, it's kind of hard to get people involved in something, to organize around something?
COUGHLAN: Students are very busy at college. They take classes. A lot of people work, and a lot of people are members of multiple organizations. So they have some free time, and they need to decide how to spend it.
Our group, we've taken several initiatives this past year in terms of - instead of just doing, you know, events where it's politics is the only discussion, we do social events also where we go out and get dinner. Everyone will go out on weekends together or go see movies. And those initiatives keep people in because they form friendships within the group so that that becomes a friend group rather than just going to a meeting a week and talking about politics. And that's been the best way. And social media gets people's attentions. But once we get them in person, we need to make sure they stay a member of our organization.
MARTIN: Why do you think this Condoleezza Rice issue took hold? I mean, you seem to be suggesting that there was a lot of faculty objection as well. You - it is your belief that the majority of the people attending would have welcomed her and wanted to hear her. But why - so why do you think it got to a level of visibility where she felt that she had to withdraw 'cause she didn't want to be a distraction? Thoughts?
COUGHLAN: The faculty passed a resolution in the end of February at New Brunswick to disinvite her. And from that it kind of - the students who were against her then felt motivated to not have her come speak. In the weeks in between, the student government actually had a debate over whether or not she would come. And they're the voice of students on campus who represent us. And they voted to warmly welcome her.
But the faculty were - kept talking about nonstop how they didn't want her to come. One person actually went on Russia's state-sponsored television and said how they didn't want her to come. And the faculty just kept talking about it so much that it didn't go away as an issue.
MARTIN: Was the fee part of it? I understand a fee was to be paid. Was that part of it?
COUGHLAN: The people who were protesting her raised that as an issue. But the reality is that that's a very standard practice for speakers. And before, Rutgers actually paid over $30,000 of Snooki from the "Jersey Shore" come speak. And the same faculty didn't raise any issues about that. But all the sudden it was a conservative woman and they raised a lot of issues about it.
MARTIN: You know, I was going to ask you about that. Speaking of reality, that - so she was paid to speak. She was not the commencement speaker, though. And you're saying there were not protests about that.
COUGHLAN: From the faculty, there was no protests. And she was paid almost the exact same fee. And the message that she delivered was study hard but party harder, which is not a message that college students should be getting from their tuition money.
MARTIN: Did you protest that?
COUGHLAN: I was not a student. I was still in high school trying to decide where to go to college at the time.
COUGHLAN: And I think it made my parents hesitate a little bit, but I chose Rutgers in the end anyway.
MARTIN: Well, good luck with all your future plans. Andrew, final thought from you?
SOWDERS: Well, I think there probably wasn't a dissent because she was a conservative woman. But I think when you have something so controversial as the Iraq war and there not being much of an investigation, I think that's going to lend itself towards a mob veto.
SOWDERS: So it's unfortunate that they didn't hear her inspiring speech, but I can understand the dissent, certainly.
MARTIN: Andrew Sowders is the legislative director of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro College Democrats with us from NPR member station WFDD in Winston-Salem. Donald Coughlan is chairman of Rutgers College Republicans and the New Jersey College Republicans. He was with us from New Brunswick. Thank you both so much for joining us.
COUGHLAN: Thank you.
SOWDERS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.