Light, not heat, marks December commencement

Students stream into Haas Pavilion.

Students stream into Haas Pavilion Saturday, spotting — or searching for — friends and family in the stands. (UC Berkeley photos by Kevin Ho Nguyen)

In the lead-up to 2014’s winter commencement, the spotlight was squarely on Bill Maher, the scheduled keynote speaker, who had sparked calls for a replacement by likening Islam to the Mafia on his HBO platform for provocative, celebrity-laced punditry, Real Time With Bill Maher.

On Saturday, though, the stars of the show were the nearly 500 graduating seniors in Haas Pavilion. Save for a brief, silent protest by a half-dozen students as Maher took the podium, most reserved their enthusiasm for getting their UC Berkeley diplomas and posing for pictures with families and friends. They welcomed Maher as they might any visiting lecturer, albeit one blessed with a famous face and impeccable comic timing.

“Graduates, today is your day,” said Chancellor Nicholas Dirks, an assertion that proved uncontroversial.

The October comments by Maher, the one-time host of Comedy Central’s Politically Incorrect, prompted some students and supporters to demand that Berkeley officials rescind his invitation to deliver Saturday’s keynote. Dirks insisted the invitation stand, engaging critics of the decision in an ongoing debate over the balance between free expression and what an online petition termed “the responsibility of the University of California to protect all students and uphold a standard of civility.”

Bill Maher, Claude Steele

Bill Maher addresses the crowd as Claude Steele, Berkeley’s executive vice chancellor and provost, looks on.

Maher declined to take part in a campus forum to discuss the issues swirling around his appearance, opting instead simply to speak at the ceremony. But aside from the students who turned their backs as he rose to speak — each of them holding one-word signs that together read “Dear Admin, Don’t Maher Our Commencement” — the event was notable less for conflict than for consistency with Berkeley graduations dating back nearly a century and a half.

In a 15-minute talk sprinkled with laugh lines, Maher, dressed in a ceremonial gown, drew frequent applause with repeated appeals to liberalism and free speech.

“I recognize that this university, on the 50th anniversary of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, made a statement by choosing me for this speech,” he told the crowd. “And I would like to say I appreciate that, and I’d also like to say I think you made the right statement. Never forget that we are lucky to live in a country that has a First Amendment, and liberals should want to own it the way conservatives own the Second.”

Applause mixed with groans when he joked about campus opposition to his appearance.

“Making a difference is why I’m a liberal. Now, you don’t have to be a liberal, although, come on, it’s Berkeley, I think i can speak freely here,” Maher said. Then, after a beat: “I mean, I hope I can.”

He even made a plea for tolerance, though without reference to what some critics regard as his own intolerance — even for someone who proudly skewers all religions — toward Islam. His recent statements, they said, are offensive to Muslims and contrary to Berkeley values.

Maher described being raised by “two liberal parents,” and how that experience shaped his political perspective. “In my family, we were always on the side of the underdog and those who were being treated unfairly,” he said. “In my house, the only thing we did not have tolerance for was intolerance.”

“You don’t have to be a liberal. But if you call yourself a liberal, you have to fight oppression from wherever oppression comes from, especially of women, gays, minorities and freethinkers,” he declared. “That’s what makes you a liberal.”

In the traditional spirit of commencement, Maher, who noted he turns 59 next month, liberally dispensed tidbits of wisdom to his young listeners preparing to enter the next stage of life, “like you’re just out of the womb, and I’m the doctor who’s slapping you.”

Protest signs

A silent protest over Maher’s appearance was brief, and civil.

Wanting to succeed in “the rat race,” he advised, “doesn’t make you a rat. This is America. There’s nothing wrong with competitive people wanting to win… Just do it with compassion and perspective — not like Republicans.”

And he stressed the importance of combating global climate change, calling the environment “paramount among the many challenges we face.”

“The world desperately needs a generation — your generation — to make this a priority,” said Maher, “the way the Vietnam generation, on this very campus, made stopping that war a priority. “

Dirks, in his welcoming remarks, pronounced commencement “a time-honored ritual,” and observed that by guaranteeing the “basic right” of free speech, “we also ensure that there will be times when we must tolerate speech that offends us.”

As befitting the occasion, however, the chancellor focused mainly on the students, each of whom, he said, “has traveled a distinctive path to arrive at today’s graduation.”

“You join and renew the long line of alumni, reaching back to 1868, whose lives are forever entwined with this great university,” said Dirks. “Today you become one of some 465,000 living alumni worldwide who can proudly call themselves Berkeley graduates.”

And that, it seemed, was the final word.

Related post: View video highlights of Maher’s speech, and his full presentation.