Consider merit over star power when bringing controversial speakers to campus

Universities across the country welcome famous speakers and guest professors to their campuses each year. It is common for high-ranking members of the federal government to become faculty or administrators at elite universities during their tenure or after their appointment is up. This has largely gone undiscussed during previous presidential administrations, but as President Donald Trump’s cabinet is considered for university positions, it is imperative that colleges take merit into account over star power.

Since the first months of Trump’s presidency, famous members of his administration and campaign have been invited to college campuses both as speakers and as faculty members or administrators. Former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s contentious career ended with a fellowship appointment at Harvard University. Students and alumni at Harvard were upset by Spicer’s brief fellowship in 2017, and some called on officials to rescind the fellowship for Spicer and former Trump aide, Corey Lewandowski.

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos was also invited to speak at several universities, including as the commencement speaker at the Bethune-Cookman University, where she was met with student protest. Later last year when DeVos came to GW’s campus, students rallied to protest her event at the School of Media and Public Affairs.

Some have argued that members of the Trump administration should not be invited to colleges and universities as guest lecturers, commencement speakers, panelists or administrators. But others defend any speaker because college campuses are a place for growth, and some would argue that banning members of this administration diminishes diversity in political thought.

Regardless of political opinion, this is an incredibly divisive administration that universities should not stand behind. Inviting members of the Trump administration to campus puts a stamp of approval on that person, as well as the policies they have enacted. Because of that, the University must focus on what skills and qualities those individuals bring when selecting people to invite to campus.

Many professors and students would argue that the purpose of higher education is to bring different thoughts and ideas to campus in order to have well-rounded students. However, that doesn’t mean it’s acceptable for the University to bring people that are racist, sexist or xenophobic to campus. Actions of the administration while working for Trump should be a red flag for university officials, and should outweigh their fame.

While it should not be a top priority, universities likely weigh the fame of speakers and guest professors they are considering inviting to campus. Instead, the potential reaction of students and alumni should be weighed in the decision-making process when considering inviting a controversial speaker.

Students have many reasons to be upset by these appointments and invitations. Among the biggest reasons is that many officials have publicly supported policies that go directly against the values of the students and the universities that invited them. While schools like Harvard lashed out against the Muslim ban and Trump’s immigration policies, they turned around and provided speaking opportunities to the very people, like Spicer and DeVos, who supported and implemented those policies. Universities, including GW, can’t simultaneously hold up their values and stand up for students affected by Trump’s policies while giving members of his administration a platform and effectively approving their public stances.

Past statements and policies supported by speakers should especially be considered when selecting them for events that are large in scale. For events like the University-wide Commencement and other events that are attended by the entire student body, having a speaker that alienates some of the population prevents them from attending an event they should be able to.

These visits may also make students uncomfortable because their tuition dollars could help fund often large speaking fees. GW is highly dependent on tuition, and money that comes directly from students should not fund speakers that have publicly voiced their support for policies like ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. It’s hard for any university to please all students, but it’s incredibly important not to effectively ignore and silence large portions of the student body by inviting discriminatory and often racist speakers, and footing the bill with their tuition dollars.

When the next Trump official leaves the administration looking for a job or speaking opportunity, universities must remember their values. By bringing Trump administration officials to campuses, universities are giving platforms to speech and policies that go directly against their values and the values of many of their students. GW and other universities must consistently value the merit of each speaker over the attention they bring to the school.

The editorial board is composed of Hatchet staff members and operates separately from the newsroom. This week’s piece was written by opinions editor Renee Pineda and contributing opinions editor Kiran Hoeffner-Shah based on conversations with The Hatchet’s editorial board, which is composed of managing editor Matt Cullen, design editor Zach Slotkin, managing director Elise Zaidi, sports editor Barbara Alberts and culture editor Margot Dynes.

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