Should we ditch Commencement speakers?

Every spring, news cycles fill with stories of college and university students protesting the selection of Commencement speakers, usually on political or religious grounds. Critics of the protests often respond that demanding withdrawal of a Commencement speaking invitation has the effect of discouraging free and robust speech.

Hmm…perhaps we should simply end the practice of inviting prominent people to speak at Commencements.

When students protest the selection of a Commencement speaker, it’s typically not just about their social or political views. Rather, something about that speaker detracts from a moment that should be for the students and their families. If a speaker has taken a particularly sharp or divisive position, his or her presence may actually spoil the ceremony for those students.

Yes, critics of the protesters raise valid concerns about undermining free speech. However, unlike a campus forum that students may choose to attend, those at a Commencement ceremony are a captive audience. If participating in Commencement is important to them, they have to sit and listen, and there’s no opportunity to respond to the speaker. It’s one-way free speech, at best. If someone is worth bringing to campus to speak, then why not sponsor a genuine academic program around their appearance that allows for give-and-take?

This brings me to another good reason to ditch Commencement speakers: Rather than being controversial, most Commencement speeches are eminently forgettable, a mix of platitudes, applause lines, and personal anecdotes, many of which have been shared time and again on previous occasions. Much hot air is expended in return for so little content. In most cases, why bother?

In sum, I suggest that we skip most of the “name” speakers and return Commencement to the students. Allow them to pick several fellow graduates and maybe even or a professor or two who will keep their remarks short and snappy. Then invite them to walk across the stage as they transform into graduates.


If formal addresses at ceremonial events such as Commencements are to be the norm, then let me suggest two exemplars of the art:

The first is President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Gettysburg Address, delivered at the dedication of the Gettysburg, Pennsylvania national battlefield cemetery. Justly considered one of the greatest speeches in American history, President Lincoln took but a few minutes to deliver it. (Many are unaware that the featured speaker that day, noted orator Edward Everett, spoke for some two hours, in keeping with expectations for such events back then. Unlike Lincoln’s brief speech, Everett’s oration has been consigned to history’s dustbin.)

I’ve featured the second speech on this blog before, President John F. Kennedy’s 1963 Commencement address at American University in Washington D.C., during which he set out the challenges of maintaining peace in the nuclear age. It masterfully blends substance with doses of wit, while bowing to the University, its graduates, and the deeper values of higher education. Here’s a snippet:

Toxic work environment prompts dismissal of French museum president

If you think that work life in the creative sectors manages to escape toxic leadership, please think again. Bad leaders can be found anywhere, even in occupational areas devoted to advancing creativity, artistic expression, and cultural enrichment.

Case in point: The president of the Musée Picasso (Picasso Museum) in Paris, Anne Baldassari, has been relieved of her duties amidst an employee relations crisis implicating her leadership. Doreen Carvajal reports for the New York Times that the French culture ministry, which presides over the Picasso Museum, announced that:

…Ms. Baldassari had been dismissed because of a “gravely deteriorating work environment.” It cited a management review in March by an inspector general who recommended an overhaul because of “profound suffering in the workplace and a toxic atmosphere” that had provoked a series of resignations by high-ranking officials . . ..

Furthermore, a statement by Claude Picasso, the artist’s son, suggesting that the workers’ concerns were exaggerated  “galvanized more than half the museum’s current staff of 45 people to issue a statement over the weekend in which they described a management style marked by favoritism, conflict, mercurial decision making and a lack of communication.”

Sometimes we may naïvely assume that because an organization’s mission is devoted to a seemingly higher purpose, those who lead the enterprise share a commitment to fair employment practices and worker dignity. If only that was so…

How to deny, discount, and dismiss bullying and psychological abuse at work

A recent blog piece by psychologist Kenneth Pope explaining how reports of torture can be easily denied, discounted, and dismissed strongly resonated with my understanding of the dynamics of bullying and abuse at work. I thought it worth sharing and discussing with readers here.

Three cognitive strategies

Dr. Pope identifies “three common cognitive strategies for denying, discounting, dismissing, or distorting instances of torture and for turning away from effective steps to stop it and hold those responsible accountable”:

First, “reflexively dismissing all evidence as questionable, incomplete, misleading, false, or in some other way inadequate.”

Second, “using euphemism, abstraction, and other linguistic transformations” to hide the abuse.

Third, by “turning away: ‘I’m not involved,’ ‘There is nothing I can do about it,’ ‘I have no authority, jurisdiction, power, or influence,’ ‘This is no concern of mine,’ etc.”

Applied to workplace bullying

I quickly thought of workplace bullying when I read this blog post.

First, on “reflexively dismissing all evidence”: My gosh, how many stories I’ve heard about people in positions of authority — CEOs, supervisors, and HR directors — dismissing claims of workplace bullying, even when they are backed up with e-mails, statements, third-party observations, and the like!

Second, on “using euphemism [and] abstraction” to hide workplace abuse: How many versions of this have we heard? Oh, they had a personality conflict. . . . Yeah, he can be abrasive, but he’s really a great guy underneath. . . . She just wasn’t a good fit for this place. Need more?

Third, on “turning away” from a bullying situation experienced by someone else: Workplace bullying thrives when bystander indifference is commonplace. Bullying targets frequently experience abandonment by colleagues, including those who know very well what has been transpiring.

When it comes to shedding light on our understanding of workplace bullying, I try to be very careful about invoking references to other severe forms of interpersonal abuse and mistreatment, especially those that are commonly associated with significant human rights violations. At times, however, when the shoe fits…

Duffy & Sperry on the organizational life cycle: When the wheels are coming off, do bullying/mobbing behaviors follow?

In their new book, Overcoming Mobbing: A Recovery Guide for Workplace Aggression and Bullying (2014), co-authors Maureen Duffy and Len Sperry present a trenchant, insightful description of the typical life cycle of organizations:

  • “Stage I: New Venture”
  • “Stage II: Expansion”
  • “Stage III: Professionalization”
  • “Stage IV: Consolidation”
  • “Stage V: Early Bureaucratization”
  • “Stage VI: Late Bureaucratization”

It’s Stage V, Early Bureaucratization, where serious organizational problems start to arise. Status seeking and turf wars become common. As negativity builds, the better workers start to leave. Leadership morphs into poor administration, and passive-aggressive behaviors increase while morale decreases.

The wheels start coming off in Stage VI, Late Bureaucratization. Miscommunication and poor communication become the norm, as well as helplessness and a lack of shared direction. Workers avoid rocking the boat and safeguard their own job security, while leaders simply try to keep the place going. At this point, absent major, positive changes, “the eventual demise of the organization seems inevitable.”

How does this relate to bullying and mobbing at work?

I suggest that you spend some time with this excellent book to see how the authors relate this life cycle to bullying and mobbing behaviors at work, but we can also ponder the question here.

We have known for a long time that interpersonal abuse at work is usually enabled by an organization’s culture. The Duffy-Sperry conceptualization of the organizational life cycle helps to clarify when these behaviors may become more frequent, especially varieties of mobbing that are focal points for their work.

Over the years, I’ve heard many descriptions of workplace cultures associated with bullying & mobbing that seem to correlate with the Early and Late Bureaucratization stages described by the authors. Status-seeking, turf wars, dropping morale, poor leadership, passive-aggressive behaviors, lousy communication, self-protective and play-it-safe strategies…the list goes on and on.

Bullying behaviors thrive in such institutional settings. Fixing such a toxic work environment calls for wise, inclusive, and open-minded stewardship — very likely the opposite of the brands of “leadership” that brought the organization to its crisis point in the first place.

I’m curious if readers recognize these latter stages of the organizational life cycle in bullying & mobbing situations they’ve experienced or observed.

As graduation season approaches, some words of advice to students (and others)


[As a law professor at Suffolk University Law School, I’ve been serving as the founding faculty advisor to a new student-edited law journal, Bearing Witness: A Journal on Law and Social ResponsibilityBW just published its second issue, and I contributed a short column of advice to the students in response to a request from the editors. I thought I’d share it here.]

When the editors of Bearing Witness invited faculty to contribute short pieces of advice for the second issue, I wasn’t sure what to offer. But then I started thinking about life in general, and suddenly the words came easier. Do not assume that I’ve done all these things right; rather, some of these points represent lessons learned. Here goes:

  1. Living a fulfilling life beats living a mindlessly happy one. Just my opinion.
  2. Pick your battles carefully, but don’t use that maxim as an excuse for never getting involved. The world is littered with people who always find reasons not to take a principled stand.
  3. When it comes to people you want to be around, political affiliations may be important, but overall character and a sense of humor count for even more.
  4. The years ahead will be very challenging ones for this world. Concerns about the economy, jobs, and the environment, to name a few, aren’t going away. Strive to contribute solutions.
  5. Personal setbacks and hard times are never good, but they can teach us about resilience, recovery, and renewal.
  6. A dose of self-promotion is often helpful toward success, but rather than constantly trying to impress people, let your work and deeds do most of your speaking for you. Avoid becoming one of those highly credentialed individuals whose greatest talent is “wowing” people in an interview.
  7. The Golden Rule is hard to live by sometimes, but it’s a key to a better world.
  8. If someday you reach a point where you have a group of friends going back 20 years or more, consider yourself blessed.  Make those friends now, and in 20 years you’ll know what I mean.
  9. All that stuff about finding your own way, choosing your own path, etc., may sound trite, but give it some hard thought. Few things are worse than living an inauthentic life.
  10. Be accountable to yourself. Own up to your miscues and mistakes. It’s easier said than done, I know, but you’ll feel better about yourself in the long run.
  11. Keep learning and growing. If someone wrote in your high school yearbook, “Stay the way you are! Don’t ever change!,” don’t take it literally.
  12. Whether you loved law school, hated law school, or fell somewhere in between, you can use this knowledge to make a positive difference. Good luck!


Related posts

How a Cole Porter musical embodies Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences (2013) — Includes a link to a terrific Ball State University commencement speech by Tony Award-winning performer Sutton Foster, who tells graduates, above all, don’t be a jerk.

Inauthenticity and the fast track to a midlife crisis (2013) — “But one of the most important lessons I’ve learned is to pick and choose wisely among these markers of achievement. If you fail to do so, you may find yourself living an inauthentic life (at least the part spent at work), and your psyche may struggle with the grudging realization that you’re pursuing someone else’s definition of success.”

Some Graduation Day-type reading (2012) — “For those of us in the education field, this is Commencement season, and with it brings the usual blizzard of graduation speeches — a few truly excellent, most okay, and a sprinkling of the genuinely dreadful. I’m not about to offer the online version of one of these speeches, but instead, I want to share four books for graduates and non-graduates alike that contain a lot of wisdom, guidance, and food for thought.”

How’s this for an epitaph? “She lived a balanced life” (2011) — “Way back in 1985, Norman Redlich, the dean of NYU Law School, referenced those Broadway lyrics in his remarks at our graduation convocation. His message: It sounds great, but most of us can’t have it all. There are choices to make and realities to navigate in a life that moves all too quickly.”

Willy Loman, defining success, and the Great Recession (2010) — “J.K. Rowling . . . told the graduates that bottoming-out as a financially-strapped single mom prodded her to finish the manuscript that led to the Harry Potter series. Rowling smartly added: ‘You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity.'”


Workplace bullying: The challenges in moving from recognition to renewal

Last summer, I wrote that many targets of workplace bullying go through a procession of stages in their paths toward a better place: Recognition, response, recovery, and renewal. I’d like to revisit that framework and examine where we are now in our ability to help individuals who are experiencing bullying at work.

Recognizing that one is being bullied at work has become easier. In the U.S., the term “workplace bullying” is gaining wider usage, buttressed by growing coverage in the popular and social media, and supported by an expanding body of research and academic commentary. Consequently, many are able to tap into sources that validate their experiences and impressions. This has occurred time and again, for example, when people find their way to the website of the Workplace Bullying Institute.

However, responding to workplace bullying behaviors isn’t easy. True, today we have a much better understanding of the potential choices and resources available to targets of bullying at work. Nevertheless, these options, ranging from self-help measures to legal interventions, are limited. It remains the case that unrelenting abuse at work, especially when allowed to go unchecked by the employer, usually results in the target leaving the job or being pushed out as the final measure of a campaign of bullying. This is especially so in the U.S., where the current paucity of legal protections against workplace bullying gives employers scant incentive to prevent and respond to it.

The most challenging stages are recovery and renewal, but they also offer the most reward.

If severe bullying at work triggers acute stress reactions, anxiety, depression, and/or other health-harming conditions, then recovering from that experience may require professional assistance. The helping modalities may include therapy and counseling, medical care, personal and career coaching. Here, legal advice may be helpful in assessing benefit options.

As I wrote last summer, it’s awfully hard to recover from bullying unless the threat is removed. Typically the recovery process can begin when the individual is no longer confronted by the abusive behaviors.

Finally, we have renewal. Here is where an individual becomes freed from the bad experience and starts to (re)discover the joy, buzz, and zest of life. This usually requires time and effort, and sometimes ongoing work with mental health professionals, advisors, and coaches. For some, it means finding a workplace dramatically different from the one they left, or perhaps even discovering a new vocation.

For someone in the midst of an abusive work environment, the stage of renewal may look as if it’s on the other side of the world, but it is achievable.

So what does this all mean? First, over the years I have observed that many targets of workplace bullying get stuck somewhere between the stages of recognition and recovery. They may gain considerable understanding about bullying at work, but frequently they lose their jobs. The overall experience finds them caught in feelings of anger and resentment, at times dealing with what some have labeled post-traumatic embitterment disorder.

Second, the process of moving from recognition to renewal is not necessarily a linear one. The four stages may overlap, and stress reactions may recur even as someone is progressing toward recovery and renewal.

Third, although we’ve gained a ton of knowledge and understanding about workplace bullying over the past decade, we are still developing effective, accessible responses and helping options for those who are dealing with this serious form of workplace abuse. We’ve got a lot of important work ahead of us.

Dignity instead: The “markets and management” framework for U.S. workplace law should go

American employment law has been dominated by a belief system that embraces the idea of unfettered free markets and regards limitations on management authority with deep suspicion.  Under this “markets and management” framework, the needs for unions and collective bargaining, individual employment rights, and, most recently, protection of workers amid the dynamics of globalization, are all weighed against these prevailing norms.

The creation of New Deal labor and social legislation during the 1930s, and the expansion of employment rights during the 1960s and 1970s, provided tangible benefits to workers in terms of collective bargaining, minimum wage, discrimination, and modest wrongful discharge protections.  However, these gains have been under continuous and vigorous attack for several decades, to the point where today the state of American employment relations is at a critical juncture.

For the sake of workers and organizations alike, we must rethink this dominant framework. Thanks to the publication of economist Thomas Piketty’s groundbreaking Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2014) — an exhaustive study of income inequality in some 20 nations (including the U.S.) — we have a new understanding of how unbridled capitalism has led to huge concentrations of wealth benefiting the super rich. Furthermore, concerns about job security and working conditions, bullying at work, and steadily lower union membership levels continue to raise important questions about the well-being of everyday workers and their role in shaping the modern workplace.

In addition, the courts and legal process offer marginal solace for mistreated employees. Despite the seeming abundance of potential legal protections for many American workers, effectuating one’s employment-related rights can be a lengthy, expensive, and stressful undertaking.  Employment lawsuits are costly and time consuming for both employees and employers.

Transforming all this is no easy task, but let’s start with the fundamental conviction that human dignity should supplant “markets and management” as the central framework for analyzing and shaping American employment law.  Simply put, we need to reframe the intellectual and rhetorical debate over employment law and policy to focus on the dignity and well-being of workers.

Within such a “dignitarian” framework, there is plenty of room for market-based competition, entrepreneurship, individual responsibility, and sound management prerogative.  Furthermore, the call for dignity in the workplace is not a rallying cry for state ownership, runaway taxation, or regulatory micromanagement of the workplace.  Rather, it is about promoting the complementary goals of healthy, productive, and socially responsible workplaces within a mix of robust private, public, and non-profit sectors.


Note: This post is a slightly revised and edited version of the introduction to my 2009 law review article, “Human Dignity and American Employment Law,” University of Richmond Law Review. I find myself returning to this piece periodically to draw out basic themes that I want to share with readers of this blog. The idea of supplanting the dominant “markets and management” framework with a commitment to human dignity is chief among the core precepts. I further developed these ideas in a 2010 law review essay, “Employment Law as If People Mattered: Bringing Therapeutic Jurisprudence into the Workplace,” Florida Coastal Law Review.

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