Response of Michael Smerconish to Being Disinvited as the ’24 Dickinson College Commencement Speaker

“On a personal note, and as a long-time acquaintance and admirer of your career, I am excited to welcome you to campus.”

So wrote Dickinson College president John E. Jones by letter dated January 17 when inviting me to be the school’s 2024 commencement speaker and an honorary degree recipient.  But on Saturday morning, he wrote for a different reason – to rescind the invitation, citing a desire to limit distraction at graduation.

On one thing we agree:  I would never want to take attention from the Class of 2024, especially recognizing that COVID robbed its members of celebrations when they graduated from high school in 2020.

Dickinson was my fifth commencement invitation.  I have previously addressed the graduating classes of Widener University (2016), the Klein College of Media and Communication at Temple University (2017), Delaware Valley University (2018), and the University of the Sciences (2020).

So what changed?

In the last few days, some Dickinson faculty and students raised complaints about a book I published in 2004.  That’s not a typo – 2004.  They were left uncomfortable after a selective reading from my post-9/11 book through their 2024 lens.  Signs at a student encampment this week displayed the demand of my cancellation alongside divestment in Israel.

This should be a cautionary tale for anyone in America who believes in fairness, common sense, the free exchange of ideas, rational decision-making, and the importance of leadership in the face of hysteria.

My work as an author was well known to Dickinson and applauded by its president.  The press release announcing my selection correctly acknowledged that I’ve written seven books.  My first book was the only one I never set out to write.  It just evolved based on personal experience. To be sure, the words I wrote at a time when Bin Laden was still on the lam, and America was reeling from the greatest strike on our homeland since Pearl Harbor might look intemperate to a student who wasn’t born when the attack occurred.  But my words resonated when written with adults, including their parents.

Times change, people change, circumstances change. Statements in books written decades ago, if penned by the well-intentioned with a history of tolerance and advocacy of unity, cannot in a just and rational society be the basis for judging someone’s soul or determining their fitness to be part of the national conversation. And it certainly shouldn’t obliterate someone’s lifetime of reputation and performance. Those students who demanded I not speak had better hope that twenty years from now, when they are looking for a job, no one will look at everything they said and did two decades earlier, yanking it out of context and using it as a weapon of personal destruction.

“Flying Blind: How Political Correctness Continues to Compromise Airline Safety Post 9/11” was written by me in the immediate aftermath of that calamitous day.  It has been grossly distorted by those who advocated for my Dickinson cancellation.  I doubt any of those critics read it in total.  Instead they have surgically selected quotes that suit their narrative, not the thesis of the book.

“Flying Blind” was an outgrowth of my weekly newspaper column for the Philadelphia Daily News in which I often addressed a post-9/11 world, including airline security.  Much of that which ended up in the book was first published in the newspaper.  My investigation was entirely serendipitous; it began with an unusual airport screening preceding a flight to Florida for our kids’ Spring Break and ended with my invited testimony before the United States Senate.

See my sworn testimony here: Oversight Hearing on Passenger Screening and Airline Authority To Deny Boarding

My whistleblowing focused on a Department of Transportation policy pre and post-9/11, which precluded more than two individuals of any particular ethnicity from being singled out at the same time for secondary screening at airports.  Applying that illogic to the 19 terrorists who killed 3,000 Americans on 9/11 means that even if airport security had suspected criminal intent by the would-be hijackers, they could not have been subjected to secondary questioning.  I believed that policy to be ludicrous then – and still do now. My primary source was the Honorable John Lehman, former Secretary of the Navy and 9/11 Commissioner (who wrote a blurb for the book jacket).

Secretary Lehman first piqued my curiosity when he asked the following question of Secretary Condoleezza Rice at the 9/11 Commission hearing on April 8, 2004.  Listen:



Among the many I personally interviewed was Herb Kelleher, the founder and President of Southwest Airlines who confirmed what Lehman had raised in the hearing.  Pennsylvania’s longest-serving U.S. Senator, Arlen Specter, wrote the Foreward for the book.  All author proceeds were donated by me to the Garden of Reflection, Pennsylvania’s official 9/11 monument based in my native Bucks County.  I was interviewed extensively by major media when the book was published.  The manuscript was well-received and not controversial at the time.

“Flying Blind” is actually one of two books I have authored on airline security.  The other is called “Instinct” and tells the story of Jose Melendez Perez, an American hero who stopped the presumed 20th hijacker from entering the United States one month prior to 9/11 and, in the process, arguably thwarted a direct attack on the U.S. Capitol or White House by the four terrorists aboard Flight 93.  I donated all author proceeds from “Instinct” to the Flight 93 Memorial in Shanksville, PA.  The front jacket of “Instinct” contains the endorsement of former Pennsylvania Governor and the nation’s first Secretary of Homeland Security, Tom Ridge.

My commencement speech was already written.  It’s a 14-minute version of longer remarks I’m delivering across the country called The Mingle Project.  In a world of bombast and discontent, I’m on a mission to restore civility and compromise to our public discourse.  For three decades, I’ve had a front-row seat to the increase in polarization that has gripped the nation.  I see the current climate as part of a much larger disconnect in society fueled by technology and self-sorting that has caused a mental health crisis among our youth.  In my remarks, I draw on anecdotes, social science, and humor to encourage common experiences through social interaction that is not based on technology.

See: The Mingle Project – Trailer

“Class of 2024, when we mingle, we tell each other our life stories. We practice empathy, we build connections, and we strengthen our social fitness,” I would have said.

The twisting of an uncontroversial book when I wrote it twenty years ago without acknowledgment of the context in which it was written — and the resultant cancellation of constructive graduation remarks — is regrettably a reflection of our times. I am collateral damage. This will not dissuade me from seeking to be a voice of reason in unreasonable times.

I’ve worked on a hot mic since 1990.  Today (and for the last 11 years), I am responsible for 15 live hours of radio per week on SiriusXM.  And last month, I celebrated my ten-year anniversary as the host of my own program on CNN.  As Malcolm Gladwell would say, I’ve invested my 10,000 hours. I’ve always viewed my access to the airwaves as a privilege.  Admittedly, I have said plenty of foolish things over the years.  But none with animus.  My record contains no hate, no prejudice.  If the case were otherwise, you’d know it.

Which is why I find the Dickinson decision so troubling and chilling. Before there was any hint of controversy at Dickinson, in both my SiriusXM and CNN advocacy, I condemned the decision by the University of Southern California to cancel the planned speech by its valedictorian, who happened to be Muslim, after some of her social media postings drew attention. We are doing our youth, future leaders, and nation a disservice if the civil, deliberative speech of the type I would have delivered at Dickinson is now unwelcome because it is easier to yield to the uninformed than to invest the time necessary to make reasoned decisions.

I am already hearing from many alumni who are disappointed in their alma mater.  One suggested, and I agree, that the honorable thing for Jones to have done was to call me and explain his inability to control the unjustified campus sentiment while asking me to withdraw my acceptance in return for a public statement saying that this should in no way be viewed as a negative reflection of my scholarship or work as a journalist.

Those members of the college community who pressured to get my speech cancelled are surely celebrating today that their censorship-fueled campaign succeeded. But my guess is that more than a few who remained silent and succumbed to the mob are at least a little bit embarrassed at having done so.  Surely, they realize the precedent that’s been set for future commencement speakers?  Achievement of the sort that warrants invitation to speak at such a ceremony does not come from a life lived quietly.

I wish the Dickinson Class of ’24 all the very best for a wonderful graduation day and a bright future. And I hope for them a world where volume no longer eclipses reason.


Watch my response live on SiriusXM HERE.

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