One doesn't expect the students to know this, because most colleges let students choose their courses, but the demand for public apologies has an extremely dark recent history. Around the time this cohort's parents were born, Mao Zedong's China was in the midst of the Cultural Revolution, one of the worst spasms of barbarism and sadism in the history of the world. Children were encouraged to inform on their parents. Intellectuals and class enemies of various descriptions were hounded, tortured, had their property expropriated, and were often beaten to death -- to the approving roar of the mob. Nien Cheng, in "Life and Death in Shanghai," described watching Red Guard youths tossing her precious library into a bonfire in the backyard.
The barbarism began with demands for public apologies. Teachers were forced to acknowledge their "errors" and ask the proletariat's forgiveness. At one of the top secondary schools in Xiamen, a student recalled returning from a swim to hear others shouting, "The struggle has begun!" The Black Book of Communism recorded his account:
"I saw rows of teachers ... with black ink poured over their heads ... Hanging on their necks were placards with words such as 'reactionary academic authority so and so,' 'corrupt ringleader so and so' ... Hanging from their necks were pails filled with rocks. I saw the principal: the pail around his neck was so heavy that the wire had cut deep into his skin ... All were barefoot, hitting broken gongs or pots as they walked around the field crying out: 'I am black gangster so and so.' Finally, they all knelt down ... and begged Mao Zedong to 'pardon their crimes.'"
Haverford is not China, but an educated person would understand the distinct echo of totalitarian savagery in the tone of Birgeneau's accusers.
Happily, after Birgeneau withdrew, former Princeton President William Bowen agreed to address the graduates. Noting that some had called Birgeneau's withdrawal a "small victory," Bowen delivered a stinging rebuke: "It was nothing of the kind ... I regard this outcome as a defeat ... for anyone who believes, as I think most of us do, in both openness to many points of view and mutual respect."
He got a standing ovation.