Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama and spiritual leader of Tibet, will be providing the commencement address at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) this year, and given his stature as a prominent political leader, his selection has received an immense welcoming from many undergraduate students. However, many Chinese students at UCSD aired grievances against his forthcoming appearance, citing the Dalai Lama’s promotion of Tibetan sovereignty as a figure divisive against a unified China and have called for his invitation to be rescinded. In fact, members associated with UCSD’s Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA) have stated their intention to discuss his invitation with the chancellor of the university, stating that his presence victimizes many Chinese students on campus. While CSSA has every right to air grievances to the university administration, the Dalai Lama should undoubtedly be allowed to speak at the commencement ceremony, regardless of how these groups of students feel.
The Dalai Lama, who is widely seen as a symbol of peace and unity across the world, is the highest religious figure in Tibetan Buddhism — akin to the pope in spiritual influence. However, CSSA has pointed out that the Dalai Lama has been a vocal proponent of independence for Tibet, a nation which China has currently annexed. According to CSSA, the Dalai Lama’s invitation therefore actively marginalizes them by creating a tense atmosphere since they feel he undermines the unity of the Republic of China.
Ironically, these students are expressing their concerns by saying that his presence violates principles of tolerance and inclusivity espoused by the university system. Many Chinese students expressed that it would be hypocritical to criticize a controversial figure such as Donald Trump, yet invite an “offensive” figure such as the Dalai Lama.
However, this comparison is fundamentally misguided: As a leader of one of the world’s largest religions, and a lifelong proponent of peace and unity, the Dalai Lama does not represent any legitimate threat to Chinese students at UCSD. The likelihood of him vocalizing opinions which will actively marginalize students, or which will lead to hate crimes is scant to none — there is no evidence of him vocalizing opinions of that like before.
A more accurate statement would show that this argument put forward by CSSA is a non-sequitur of sorts. Political disagreements may be unfortunate and frustrating, but they do not equate to marginalization — political disagreement is fundamental to spaces such as the university and must not be diminished for the sake of inclusivity.
Furthermore, this ranges into a debate about the relevance of free speech to issues of inclusivity and diversity. As evidenced by the riots which followed the invitation of “alt-right” icon Milo Yiannopoulos at UC Berkeley, there are stark questions about the extent to which the right to free speech should be privileged by universities, a fact cited by CSSA in their original condemnation.
While all students have every right to express their displeasure and concerns, the reality is that the Dalai Lama is not a figure whose presence is a threat to any students on campus. As a leader of one of the world’s largest religions, and an important voice for another oft-neglected or marginalized minority, it would be unwise to rescind his invitation. This does not in any way delegitimize the concern raised by CSSA, but the reality is that there is no way to accommodate the concept of free speech if important figures and leaders are uninvited due to student sensitivity to the speaker. There is a fundamental difference between political disagreement and speakers who may encourage violence or prejudice against a minority student group.