Ben Carson cancels at Johns Hopkins: the perils of commencement speakers

Dr. Ben Carson had been scheduled to be the speaker at the diploma ceremonies for two Johns Hopkins schools, but comments he made about gay marriage brought complaints from students.

Brian Witte/AP/File
Johns Hopkins Hospital surgeon Dr. Ben Carson (r.) signs a book for Delegate William Frank, (R) of Baltimore County, in Annapolis, Md., last month, after Carson, who is director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins, spoke at a legislative prayer breakfast. Carson withdrew Wednesday as the speaker at the diploma ceremonies for two Johns Hopkins schools.

Renowned surgeon Ben Carson withdrew Wednesday as the speaker at the diploma ceremonies for Johns Hopkins University’s School of Medicine and School of Education, saying he didn’t want to distract from the event given the backlash that erupted over recent comments he made about same-sex marriage on Fox News.

It’s not the first time controversial viewpoints have sparked protest of commencement speakers. It’s not even the first time this month.

Last Friday, Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania had to go back to the drawing board when Robert Zoellick, who served as deputy secretary of State under George W. Bush and later became president of the World Bank, withdrew as commencement speaker. Students who opposed him cited his support for the Iraq war as being in conflict with the school’s Quaker values, while others defended his public-service career, Inside Higher Ed reports.

For some, the debates and the pressure speakers face to step down are yet another indicator of the divisiveness of American culture.

“It’s somewhat disturbing how controversial it’s become to have commencement speakers, particularly if they’re identified with one political side or the other,” says Robert Shibley, senior vice president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education in Philadelphia. “If any controversy means that person isn’t going to be invited ... or it’s going to cause a problem, we’ll end up with some commencement speeches that are pretty boring ... and full of platitudes instead of substantive commentaries.”

The roster of commencement speakers who have drawn protest over the years includes figures as diverse as President Obama, former first lady Barbara Bush, and TV talk-show host Jerry Springer.

Dr. Carson has given commencement speeches before – and has drawn protest for a different reason. Last year, professors, students, and alumni at Emory University in Atlanta raised concerns because of his belief in creationism rather than evolution, The Washington Post reported.

In 2005, when Mr. Bush was chosen as the commencement speaker for Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., some argued colleges shouldn’t “line up on a side of the aisle,” while others thought “we should welcome him as representing the country,” says Corwin Smidt, an expert on religion in politics at Calvin and author of a book on religion and the culture wars.  

As the media have done more “narrowcasting” in recent years rather than “broadcasting,” there's been an emphasis on controversy to generate an audience, which often results in the kind of situation that perhaps Carson found himself in, Professor Smidt says – “where the moment moves you to say something that on closer reflection you wish you hadn’t said.”

Carson, himself on the faculty at Johns Hopkins, wrote in a letter to students and other faculty last week, “what really saddens me is that my poorly chosen words caused pain for some members of our community and for that I offer a most sincere and heartfelt apology.... Although I do believe marriage is between a man and a woman, there are much less offensive ways to make that point. I hope all will look at a lifetime of service over some poorly chosen words."

Concerns that students had had about Carson as a speaker had prompted a meeting between such students and the medical school dean, as well as a petition seeking his removal as a speaker, according to the Baltimore Sun.

“Dr. Carson’s decision to withdraw was his and his alone. He was not asked by either school to do so,” said Dennis O'Shea, a university spokesman, in a statement.

The school hasn’t yet announced replacement speakers for the diploma ceremonies.

Members of the Johns Hopkins class of 2013 will still get to hear from a renowned doctor. The university announced on Friday that neurosurgeon Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa will be the universitywide commencement speaker on May 23. Now at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, “Dr. Q” started off picking cotton as an immigrant from Mexico and later become known for cutting-edge cancer research.

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