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Note to Controversial Commencement Speakers — Don’t Quit!

May 16, 2014

Let’s face it, most commencement speakers aren’t really all that inspiring. Every spring, tens of thousands of graduating seniors, proud parents, faculty, and others sit through seemingly endless speeches filled with those insipid “inspiring life lessons,” those essential “kernels of wisdom that will guide graduates through life’s challenges,” and the hopeful “ten ways this year’s class of graduating seniors will change the world.”

Humor sometimes — but only sometimes — helps.

And, then occasionally the stars align and we get that memorable commencement — with a speaker whose presence and message provokes students to think about their core values, their beliefs, their relationship to the broader world; the speaker who gets the students to reflect on their courses and their intellectual growth over the past four years; someone who gets students and faculty talking, debating, and if we are really lucky engaged, riled up, and even impassioned.

That’s what makes this whole recent dust-up over a number of commencement speakers bailing on their invitations so unfortunate. These are the commencement speakers who need to show up. To the extent that any commencement speaker really matters, these controversial speakers are the ones most likely to move and inspire the students to change the world — albeit often in unintended ways.

Thus, I’m particularly disappointed in IMF chief Christine Legarde’s decision to withdraw as commencement speaker at Smith College this weekend because of “protests” against her and the IMF. Smith College President Kathleen McCartney sent an announcement to the college community earlier this week announcing and lamenting the decision:

I regret to inform you that Christine Lagarde has withdrawn as Smith’s 2014 commencement speaker in the wake of anti-IMF protests from faculty and students, including a few who wrote directly to her. She conveyed to me this weekend that she does not want her presence to detract from the occasion.

“In the last few days,” she (Legarde) wrote, “it has become evident that a number of students and faculty members would not welcome me as a commencement speaker. I respect their views, and I understand the vital importance of academic freedom. However, to preserve the celebratory spirit of commencement day, I believe it is best to withdraw my participation.”

Those who objected will be satisfied that their activism has had a desired effect. But at what cost to Smith College? This is a question I hope we will ponder as a community in the months ahead.Those who objected will be satisfied that their activism has had a desired effect. But at what cost to Smith College? This is a question I hope we will ponder as a community in the months ahead.

…I remain committed to leading a college where differing views can be heard and debated with respect.

Of course the idea that liberal students and faculty are an intolerant bunch becomes the lead in all of this. How dare students from a privileged elite liberal arts college make such illiberal demands!

The ever-predictable Fox News was quick to jump:

The far left seems to be making it a mission to silence speakers over politics at colleges across America. Last month, Brandeis University took back an honorary degree for women’s rights advocate Ayaan Hirsi Ali after a group protested.

Earlier in May, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice decided not to speak at Rutgers University’s graduation following protests from both students and faculty.

Now the first female chief of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde, has had to withdraw from speaking at the Smith College commencement ceremony. Protesters alleged that the IMF has helped oppress women worldwide.

Bloomberg News added a note on the “severity” of the protest action that the Smith College protest “may be the most hostile reaction Lagarde has faced.” And the Wall Street Journal jumped on the controversy with this insightful gem: “Forget Cairo, Athens or Buenos Aires. Now the International Monetary Fund’s top official is persona non grata in Northampton, Massachusetts.”

Seriously folks, let’s get a little perspective here. Please.

First, let’s take a look at those vicious and hostile “protests” that ultimately “forced” her to withdraw. She withdrew on the basis of an on-line petition that had roughly 400 names (at of the time of her announcement last weekend) and that had been circulating for three months. Many of the names on the petition are anonymous and there’s no way to tell if many of them are students, faculty, staff, or alums — or even outsiders. All in all, a pretty standard, low-level, minimal college campus protest action — especially since there is almost no entry cost to participation: It takes all of 30 seconds to sign an on-line petition and it can be done anonymously.

So, let’s be clear. Legarde wasn’t “forced” to back out by mass street demonstrations. No storming of the administration offices. No rocks being thrown. No sit-ins. No riot police with water tanks and tear gas. This wasn’t Seattle. There was clearly dissent and frustration by some members of the college community. But this is all standard stuff that’s been around on various college campuses for a very long time. 400 names on an on-line petition forces Legarde to capitulate?

Second, the petition organizers expressed a pretty standard critique of the IMF. Writing in our local paper yesterday, Ifetayo Harvey, one of the student leaders wrote:

When the IMF lends developing countries money, stipulations are included in the loan package. Many of the IMF’s policies require countries to cut state spending, which results in a decrease in social services and jobs. Women are most affected by the policies, because in many developing countries, women work most of the low-paying jobs, yet are primary providers for their families.

Knowing these facts, it is difficult for many Smith seniors to understand why a women’s college would invite a speaker that represents and upholds the degradation of women worldwide.

If anything, the choice of this speaker has confirmed many suspicions: that minority students are wanted at face value in elite college settings but elite colleges like Smith are not ready to fully embrace people of color.

For an institution that takes pride in the diversity of its student body, Smith College has only chosen white women as the commencement speakers for the past 12 years.

In short, the message itself was respectful and thoughtful. (Far more tame and respectful than the typical intolerant outbursts routinely pitched on cable news channels.) It also is situated in a much longer-standing debate that has been happening at Smith regarding representation and governance transparency. Good for her.

And, finally, none of this could have come as a surprise to anyone. Of course the selection of Legarde to speak at commencement was going to be unpopular with some students and faculty. Here’s the first clue: SHE HEADS the IMF! And, the second clue: All of those protests around the world against the IMF — they call them “IMF protests.”

All in all, I think it’s ridiculous that Legarde withdrew — and I think its ridiculous that this is being turned against the students and faculty who opposed her selection. The bottom line is that Legarde herself refused to participate in a public event in which she might be subject to some kind of potential student protest action during the commencement ceremony. Some students might have stood and turned their backs. Perhaps some students might have handed her notes of protest as they crossed the stage to pick up their diplomas. Some might have walked out. Some might have worn arm bands or written notes on their caps. And, yes, some might have tried to shout her down.

Oh, the horror — that might be bad optics for her and for Smith.

The issue for me comes down to two things. First, unless there is a specific security risk, the commencement speaker and the administration should stand firm and not withdraw in the face of potential protests. And, second, the students should continue to express their demands — and proceed with a respectful and civil protest action during the ceremony if necessary.

On a principled level, this outcome reflects and recognizes the values of engagement, debate, and action upon which these institutions are founded. In this regard, I’d amend slightly Smith College President Kathleen McCartney’s concluding paragraph of her open letter to the Smith College community earlier this week — a paragraph re-iterated by 120 Smith faculty members in their own response to the situation:

An invitation to speak at a commencement is not an endorsement of all views or policies of an individual or the institution she or he leads. Such a test would preclude virtually anyone in public office or position of influence. Moreover, such a test would seem anathema to our core values of free thought and diversity of opinion.

I totally agree, but I’d also add that any administration or commencement speaker who demands that students and faculty sit down and keep quiet — or a speaker who withdraws in the face of possible uncomfortable protest when students and faculty refuse to stay quiet — is also an anathema to the “core values of free thought and diversity of opinion.”

And, on a personal level, this outcome would make sitting through the annual three hour-plus commencement ceremony a whole lot more interesting and memorable.

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Jon Western has spent the last fifteen years teaching IR in liberal arts colleges at Mount Holyoke College and the Five Colleges in western Massachusetts. He has an eclectic range of intellectual interests but often writes on international security, U.S. foreign policy, military intervention, and human rights. He occasionally shares his thoughts about professional life in liberal arts colleges. In his spare time he coaches middle school soccer, mentors the local high school robotics team, skis, and sails.