Facing Threat of Student Protests, Former DHS Sec. Jeh Johnson Withdraws As Vassar College Commencement Speaker
Son of famed Vassar Prof. and former Obama official faced opposition: “I think many students will refuse to indulge such a speaker, and if he does end up coming, the administration should expect student protest and disruption.”
Jeh Vincent Johnson was a famed professor of architectural design at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, as noted by Vassar President Elizabeth Bradley when Johnson passed away in 2019:
It is with great sorrow that I must announce the passing of Jeh Vincent Johnson, who taught architectural design in the Art Department at Vassar for 37 years, from 1964 to 2001. Professor Johnson also designed many buildings on our campus, including the ALANA Center and the Susan Stein Shiva Theater. He was renowned as a thoughtful designer and an inspirational teacher—and his influence extended far beyond our gates.
Johnson’s son, Jeh Charles Johnson (“Jeh” hereafter), probably is more familiar to you, having served as Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security under Obama from 2013-2017. Among other things, Jeh now is a partner at the big New York law firm Paul Weiss, and is on the Board of Directors of Lockheed Martin.
In part to honor his father’s legacy at Vassar, on February 7, 2022, Jeh was named Vassar’s commencement speaker for 2022, as this Vassar statement announced:
College graduation exercises are familiar events for Jeh Charles Johnson; he has delivered addresses at nearly a dozen of them. But when he takes the podium at Vassar’s 158th Commencement on May 22, it will have special meaning, as he will be returning to the site of the first such ceremonies he ever attended as the son of beloved Vassar architecture instructor and industry luminary Jeh Vincent Johnson.
“Dad loved Commencement,” the younger Johnson said, recalling he had witnessed speeches by Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg in 1968 and women’s rights activist Gloria Steinem in 1969. “He always wanted to say goodbye to students he had mentored. Ever since then, I’ve always thought Commencements were special.”
Vassar President Elizabeth H. Bradley said Johnson’s selection as speaker this year was especially meaningful as the College celebrates his father’s life with the dedication of one of the buildings he designed as the Jeh Vincent Johnson ALANA Cultural Center. He died last January. “Our speaker’s father was a part of the Vassar family for nearly four decades,” Bradley said, “and his son’s achievements as an attorney and a longtime public servant can be an inspiration to our graduates.”
It was a nice and generous gesture. But it is not to be. Woke colleges can’t have nice things anymore when students take offense.
WPDH reported just 10 days later:
Vassar College’s 2022 commencement speaker has officially withdrawn from the ceremony after students expressed their outrage over his planned appearance….
Students strongly opposed the choice due to Johnson’s role in establishing detention centers at the Mexican border in response to an increase in immigrants seeking asylum. Vassar College’s student-run newspaper, The Miscellany News, featured statements from students who found Johnson’s scheduled appearance at graduation in contrast with the student body’s ideals.
Oddly, the Miscellany News article quoted by WPDH was taken down from the website (after it also ran in print) and the link redirects to the Miscellany News home page. An email to the student newspaper seeking an explanation for the takedown and redirect received this response: “Thanks for reaching out. We found some factual inaccuracies in the article due to quick reporting, and we want to take time to address them thoroughly. Best of luck with your work.” As of this writing, they have not responded to my request for details as to what was inaccurate and why they didn’t just issue a correction.
The article lives on in the Wayback Machine, Jeh Charles Johnson withdraws as commencement speaker after student opposition. It tells a familiar tale of student cancel culture tendencies:
One week after the public announcement of the 2022 commencement speaker, The Miscellany News released Jeh Charles Johnson’s withdrawal statement. The statement came in response to opposition expressed across the student body. He wrote, “In my private life I do not seek to be the object of controversy or speak at a commencement where students will object to me. I continue to be grateful for all Vassar is doing to honor my late father’s legacy as a lecturer there for 37 years.”
President Elizabeth Bradley released a statement on Vassar’s website shortly after The Miscellany News’ press release. “While I continue to believe that engaging in discussion about topics about which we disagree is essential to learning, I recognize that Commencement is not always the right setting for those, sometimes difficult, conversations,” Bradley wrote.
The outrage towards Johnson centered on his former role as Secretary of Homeland Security under the Obama administration. In 2014, he opened detention centers at the US-Mexican border to combat the influx of immigrants seeking asylum from violence in Central and South America.
Selecting the commencement speaker is the explicit responsibility of the Office of the President. The selection is made by the president, with input from senior officers and others. VSA Vice President Ryan Mazurkiewicz ’22 said Bradley approached him and VSA President Gabi James ’22 after hearing about student concerns. Recounting the sentiment that he and James shared with President Bradley, he said, “We’re not thrilled, and this is not who we would have chosen as speaker.” He added, “Other people are significantly more upset than we are. It was a matter of just saying openly and honestly, ‘This is how we feel.’ In terms of the situation being what it is, I would like to give President Bradley credit that she listened.”
The student newspaper story then goes on to quote several students regarding the outrage over the selection, including:
For many students—particularly the graduating class—the selection of Johnson as this year’s commencement speaker was perceived as a strikingly tone-deaf blow to Vassar’s integrity and community values. In a written correspondence, Ethan Rose ’22 stated, “I believe [Johnson’s] record in the public/private sectors and his material impact on the world and on marginalized groups…ought to disqualify him from coming to speak to the graduating class. It just seems to me that asking that a commencement speaker not have a record of overseeing the construction of inhumane detention facilities is a pretty low bar.” Expressing a similar viewpoint, Harriet Rose-Barwick ’22 stated, “I think many students will refuse to indulge such a speaker, and if he does end up coming, the administration should expect student protest and disruption.” And it isn’t only current students who are upset: alum Max Lapides ’14 said, “I’m sure Vassar can find someone to speak who isn’t responsible for what amounts to war crimes.”
Some students of color feel especially impacted by Johnson’s policies. In regards to Johnson’s history with Homeland Security, Oona Maloney ’22 was not at all surprised by the announcement: “It’s not surprising that Vassar, a predominantly white institution, would invite someone who played a key role in the Obama administration by exacting violence on marginalized peoples in the Middle East and at the border in the name of protecting US imperial interests,” she said.
So there you go.
Yes, technically Jeh made the decision to withdraw, he wasn’t fired or barred from the slot. He was put in an untenable position, however, selected to honor his father, yet his appearance would be the subject of protests and distruption that would take away from that honor. Terrible.
Vassar student protests against a speaker are hardly new. You might remember my 2017 appearance there, which the student government demanded not take place and led to bizarre campus antics. What generated all the fury about me? I was going to lecture about free speech, and why even speech we deem “hateful” is protected, with limited exceptions.
I wrote about it in USA Today, My pro-free speech views made me the target of a smear campaign at Vassar College:
I became the campus-wide object of hate at Vassar College for defending free speech….
I have given many lectures on campuses, mostly focusing on opposing the academic boycott of Israel and on the subject of anti-Semitism.
But I’m not a household name. And I’m not particularly controversial, although I do stick out at Cornell as one of only a small number of openly politically conservative faculty members.
So despite my campus speeches and conservative politics, I never really thought the anti-free speech mob would come for me. Until they did, at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y….
A student activist group at Vassar, with the help of Vassar student government, spread false claims to the entire student body that event information was shared by me “on multiple white nationalist websites,” that there was “active encouragement for other white nationalists to come to the event,” and that there was a need to “protect the people that this speaker has targeted in the past.” None of this was true.
Two forums were held attended by over 200 students, faculty and staff, for the purpose of planning how to prevent ME from harming students. The claim reportedly was made at that forum that the “speaker himself is trying to incite violence.” That was a lie without any factual basis….
Students put together a safety plan for the day of my speech that reads like parody, but was real. It included the now-common “safe spaces,” but also safety and emotional support teams. The Library was designated one such safe space and “will provide coloring books, zine kits, markers, construction paper etc.,” per a campus email. In case students had trouble finding a safe space, “Safe(r) spaces will be occupied by designated Vassar students with glowsticks.”
This all was surreal.
And then the Vassar student government moved in to kill the event, demanding in a letter from the Executive Board that Vassar’s president prevent me from appearing….
I swear, the plans for glowsticks, safe spaces, and coloring books were real. You can’t make this stuff up, and I didn’t.
My appearance was not cancelled, and it turned out to be a wonderful event:
The event itself was as wonderful as the demonization campaign was awful. The room was at capacity of 200 students, with an overflow crowd in the hallway. The students listened to me discuss constitutional principles of free speech, how those principles do and do not apply at private colleges and how we should aspire to make campuses the most free places, not the least free.
There were no disruptions, not even from the 2-3 dozen students dressed all in black as a protest. Almost all students stayed to the end of the 45 minute lecture and 120-minute Q&A.
You can watch my lecture and the Q&A here.
You won’t be able to watch Jeh Charles Johnson’s Vassar Commencement speech. It won’t happen. Vassar can’t have that nice thing.DONATE
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