Graduating Class of 2019 Reacts Strongly to Invited Commencement Speaker

Arthur C. Brooks will be delivering the address at Claremont McKenna College’s commencement ceremony on May 18, 2019.

Arthur C. Brooks will be delivering the address at Claremont McKenna College’s commencement ceremony on May 18, 2019.

On Monday, February 25, 2019, Claremont McKenna College announced that Arthur C. Brooks will give the commencement address at the Class of 2019’s graduation ceremony on May 18. The announcement came on the college’s website, which described Brooks as “public policy scholar and author” who “is a passionate advocate for dialogue across ideological differences.” 

Since the Class of 2019 arrived in Claremont four years ago, CMC’s graduation ceremonies’ speakers have included New Yorker Editor and Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Remnick in 2016, author and CEO of BridgeEdU Wes Moore in 2017, and International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde in 2018.

Arthur Brooks is the President of the American Enterprise Institute, a public policy think tank that describes itself as “committed to making the intellectual, moral, and practical case for expanding freedom, increasing individual opportunity, and strengthening the free enterprise system in America and around the world.” Brooks is also a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times, the author of eleven best-selling books, and formerly worked as a professor of business and government at Syracuse University. In talks given at TED, on college campuses (including at the Athenaeum in 2017), and around the world, Brooks is a well-known advocate of free enterprise, entrepreneurship, and globalization, specifically in its capacity to fight global poverty, an issue with which Brooks is very concerned. Brooks differentiates himself from other proponents of minimally regulated capitalism with his speeches, articles, and books about finding happiness and meaning in life. In his work, he champions a vision of capitalism that will provide opportunity and happiness to everyone, especially the world’s poor.

The administration’s decision for Brooks to speak at commencement prompted impassioned discussions among the senior class, who had a range of reactions to the news. For background on the decision, I posed a few questions to senior class president Edgar Warnholtz about the speaker selection process, asking him to describe the timeline of the process, who was involved, and who made the final decision. Warnholtz told me that, although he met with President Chodosh earlier in the academic year to discuss commencement, he knew that the final decision about who to bring “would be made by college leadership.” Warnholtz held a meeting attended by about 12 people to discuss what kind of speaker seniors wanted, and he passed along the students’ comments to Chodosh. Warnholtz shared that “the most powerful way for the senior class to impact commencement is through the selection of a student speaker, for which I encourage everyone to nominate a peer and vote next week.”

After hearing from Warnholtz, I reached out to as many seniors as I could for comments about decision. Most requested to be left unnamed, but were eager to contribute their opinions to the discussion. I got around twenty responses from seniors. 

Many students expressed anger or frustration about the speaker’s position as president of what is often considered the nation’s leading conservative think-tank. (Although the AEI calls itself non-partisan and frequently collaborates with institutions and individuals of a range of political views, it remains closely identified with conservatism and neoconservatism, and has ties to right-wing politicians, donors, and climate change denial.) One anonymous senior said he was “disappointed but not at all surprised” and multiple others echoed this sentiment, seeing Brooks’ invitation to speak as a familiar move reminiscent of Heather MacDonald’s Atheneum talk. Kai Vogel ’19 connected the choice of speaker to the protests that have occurred during the Class of 2019’s time in Claremont, saying that “from intense CMC/DOS/[Dean] Spellman protests that occurred just months into our freshman year to the Heather MacDonald protest, inviting the leader of a conservative think-tank is a slap in the face.” Another senior, preferring anonymity, said that “Brooks is too polarizing of a person to bring to a commencement ceremony, especially given the timing of our graduation” and that the decision “seems like an effort to appease our conservative alumni association [and] board of trustees.” 

Others emphasized what they saw as the political nature of the decision and pointed out that they found CMC’s announcement of the speaker misleading in its description of the AEI as “non-partisan,” when the think tank is widely known as conservative. Some countered by pointing out that the AEI frequently collaborates with left-leaning thinkers and institutions. Brooks considers himself an independent and said in his 2017 Atheneum speech that he does not consider himself very political.

One anonymous senior was unhappy with the some students persecution of Brooks and the AEI, writing to The Forum: “Brooks is a social scientist focused on alleviating poverty. I cannot believe my class, the ‘tolerant’ generation, are demonizing him even before they know anything about him or his message of ending poverty.” Another wrote: “I’m fine with Arthur Brooks coming. I think people are overreacting. He's really just a life coach/motivational speaker at this point. I think people are overreacting to what will probably be a pretty uncontroversial speech.”

John Nikolaou ‘19 wrote that the choice to bring Brooks to speak is understandable because the AEI advocates for “the competition of ideas, or diversity of thought” and “CMC supports this too.” He highlighted that Brooks has collaborated with politically diverse individuals and asks: “If he brings and promotes a message of listening to different ideas, aren’t we just part of the problem if we say ‘no, we only like our ideas, and we refuse to listen to yours’?”

Patrick Hennessey, a 3-2 major who entered with the Class of 2019 and is currently at USC, attended Brooks’ Athenaeum talk and wrote to The Forum about his hopes for Brooks’ speech:

“After re-watching Arthur Brook’s Athenaeum presentation from 2017, I remembered why I enjoyed hearing him speak so much. The focus of his talk was not about politics or making money, it was about how we can foster happiness, something I have been thinking about a lot as graduation looms. Brooks suggested practical steps we can take to become happier people, such as setting endogenous goals for ourselves, and prioritizing experiences and relationships over material goods.  This is something I believe most of us already know, yet I find that our actions don’t always reflect this.  Brooks’ Athenaeum presentation served as a timely reminder that what truly matters in life are the relationships we share with the people we love. This is a message I am excited for every member of the Class of 2019 to hear as we leave CMC to tackle whatever challenges lie ahead. It is my hope that Arthur Brook’s commencement address focuses on this topic, as opposed to his political views.”

Another anonymous senior wrote to The Forum about how the school’s choice of speaker is political, given Brooks’ position at the AEI, does not reflect the desires of the senior class, and is ultimately a disappointing example of CMC’s failure to listen to its students: 

"There's a near unfathomable amount of lessons learned during my tenure at CMC, and so many of them would have made wonderful backbones for a commencement address. Yet, the school has chosen to give us an emblem of a political movement we do not all ascribe to. We have SO many commonalities; our politics is (importantly!) not one of them. Not only is this an unrelated commencement address, it likely won't be anything special. He has already spoken at the Ath and TED and has a publicly available recordings of both. I would hope that commencement is intended to be a celebration of the senior class. If it is such (and not a stage for CMC's politicking with donors), I would hope that the speaker would be run past students, in at least some capacity. If even that isn't possible, I would hope that our reactions, interests, and college experience would be thought of. I'm not positive they have been." 

As only about 20 seniors responded to me with input, I do not claim to present the full range of opinions on the decision. Many responders are upset about the decision and do not feel that Brooks will reflect well on the class, but some seniors are excited about the speech or at least skeptical of the critical response to the decision. 

In collecting comments about the Brooks decision, it was made clear to me that the Class of 2019 is made up of bright and inquisitive minds who care deeply about their time at CMC and want their graduation ceremony to reflect what CMC means to them. I hope that this article sparks further discussion among students—if not about this year’s speaker, at least about the role students should play in deciding whose ideas we will listen to as we sit at the foot of the commencement stage under a large white tent, honoring our time and achievements in Claremont.

If you would like to contribute to the ongoing discussion about the Arthur Brooks decision or the role of students in picking a commencement speaker, please do not hesitate to reach out to Opinion Editor Jake Hudson-Humphrey or anyone else at The Forum.

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