Controversial Commencements – Anonymous

What do Christine Lagarde, the Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, and Condoleeza Rice, the former U.S. Secretary of State have in common? Maybe its that they are both influential women who through hard work achieved great success and powerful positions. Maybe its that they both served as role models for young girls who wanted to enter the traditionally male-dominated domains of economics and diplomacy. These would both be acceptable answers, but more recently the one thing they have in common is that they both withdrew their offers to give commencement addresses at two elite educational institutions. On May 12, Lagarde withdrew her decision to speak at Smith College in Northampton, MA and earlier in the month Rice announced she would no longer be speaking at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Both women have led careers that are both distinguished and controversial, and both have been rejected by student activists and silenced from giving their speeches. Williams College can and should learn a lesson from this.

Condoleeza Rice gained much of her notoriety from her position as Secretary of State during Bush’s presidency and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As Bush’s National Security Advisor following 9/11, she had a role in authorizing controversial interrogation techniques, and also had many successful diplomatic trips abroad, more than any previous Secretary of State. Catherine Lagarde heads the IMF, which provides loans to developing countries on the condition that they abide by certain policy constraints. It is trendy in social justice circles to decry the IMF as an oppressive and “colonial” institution, conveniently ignoring that accepting the loans is 100% voluntary on the part of developing countries. The controversy surrounding Rice and Lagarde was the source of outcry from some students and professors in the Rutgers and Smith communities.

Smith’s student body penned numerous op-ed pieces in the Smith Sophian about the choice. One writer spoke to a student who created a petition to cancel Lagarde’s address:

“She’s not the kind of leadership I want exemplified at my school,” said Francis Black ’14, who co-authored the petition that was available to sign in the Campus Center on Friday. She went on to say, “The IMF is designed to benefit Western wealthy industrialized nations. It’s set up to hurt less developed countries, requires you to de-regulate your market [and] is funded by tax dollars, but there’s no need for it and [it] is structurally designed poorly.” [1]

The petition, which is viewable here [2], urges Smith College to rescind its invitation to Legarde, alleging that,

By having her speak at our commencement, we would be publicly supporting and acknowledging her, and thus the IMF. Even if we give Ms. Lagarde the benefit of the doubt, and recognize that she is just a good person working in a corrupt system, we should not by any means promote or encourage the values and ideals that the IMF fosters. The IMF has been a primary culprit in the failed developmental policies implanted in some of the world’s poorest countries. This has led directly to the strengthening of imperialist and patriarchal systems that oppress and abuse women worldwide.


Even if I were to accept the unsupported judgment of a 22-year-old undergraduate about a complex financial institution that employs legions of people with PhDs in economics, people like Ms. Black miss the point of inviting a speaker to speak. If we, as students and graduates of liberal arts colleges, did not learn how to critically analyze actions and viewpoints, then our colleges have failed us. I would never argue that it is bad to question the merits of what policymakers and public figures say, but we cannot engage in this critical analysis if these public figures are silenced and not allowed to speak. Not inviting Lagarde does not make the IMF go away, it does not end the alleged “neo-colonialism,” and it does not actually accomplish anything other than denying Smith graduates the opportunity to hear from the 7th most powerful woman in the world. The same can be said for Rice’s cancelled speech at Rutgers. Even if Rice’s entire career at the State Department under Bush was immoral and bad for the Middle East, I find it hard to believe that a former Secretary of State can offer no meaningful advice to graduating students, regardless of how controversial parts of her tenure were.

Much to the joy of Smith activists, the Smith community received an email (copied in full below) on May 12, 2014 from Smith President Kathleen McCartney that Ms. Lagarde has withdrawn as the speaker at the commencement ceremony. The Rutgers community got similar news earlier in the month when Rice withdrew from the ceremony for similar reasons as Lagarde. Smith’s President McCartney stops short of openly criticizing student activists in her email but does encourage them to think through the effects of their activism,

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.


The cost to Smith College is clear. It is embarrassed itself by driving away a speaker that any institution should be honored to have deliver its commencement address. If I were Ms. Lagarde, I would seriously call into question the reliability of hiring a Smith alumna at the IMF, as the educational community that produced that student seems incapable of even allowing itself to hear ideas that are in any way controversial. Rather than explain why the IMF is “bad” or “colonial” or “patriarchal” and engage in rational dialogue, Smith activists have simply decried Ms. Lagarde as an imperialist and shut her up. Done. Problem Solved. Let’s give ourselves a pat on the back for taking down the IMF!

I do not necessarily love everything about the IMF, but I don’t think anyone – Ms. Lagarde included – does. As an undergraduate who has taken some economics classes and reads regularly about economics and public policy, I consider myself more qualified than many to pass judgment about the IMF, but certainly less qualified than career economists. Even if one can claim that the IMF is definitively a “bad” institution, that does not mean that there is no value in hearing the views of the woman who runs it. As President McCartney writes,

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


Hearing from people with whom you disagree can actually be a good thing. Surprise! Maybe Ms. Lagarde’s speech would inspire a new Smith graduate to pursue a PhD in economics and propose an actual criticism of the IMF that is more nuanced than “I heard they’re bad on Tumblr.” Maybe that student could go on to propose a viable alternative to aiding developing economies. Maybe a student who heard Rice’s speech would become inspired to be the next great American diplomat and manage a future conflict more peacefully. It is worth noting that various opinion pieces in the days since Lagarde’s announcement have helpfully pointed out that her tenure as director of the IMF has been marked by a move away from the austerity measures the organization used to impose on countries. As Matt O’Brien writes in the Washington Post, “Anti-austerity, pro-redistribution, and pro-inflation. This isn’t your father’s IMF, even if your father grew up in the 1990s. It’s an IMF that realizes depression economics works differently from regular economics. That’s a story Smith College students probably would have wanted to hear — if they had been willing to listen.” [3] Smith students, Rutgers students, and Williams students are unwilling to listen, and that is a much bigger problem than the controversies surrounding any individual speaker.

I want to be clear, I am not necessarily supporting (or opposing) the IMF and Ms. Lagarde in this piece, and I’m certainly not a personal fan of Secretary Rice and won’t pretend that I am, but I do unconditionally oppose any attempt to silence them. By silencing these two women, activists activists have denied themselves and their peers the opportunity to let Ms. Lagarde’s and Ms. Rice’s life stories inspire them, anger them, or drive them to create positive change.

Turning now to Williams, many students would like to see the administration rescind their invitation to Michael Bloomberg or for him to voluntarily withdraw. For many students, the selection of Bloomberg represents the presence on stage of an evil man who supported stop-and-frisk and targeting of Muslims by the NYPD. For others, Bloomberg’s speech represents an opportunity to hear from a self-made billionaire who revolutionized the financial sector. What seems harder to grasp for many in the community is that both groups of students may be correct, and that Bloomberg’s speech will have a different effect on different members of the community. Neither side is “right” and neither side is “wrong,” and while Bloomberg’s presence on the graduation stage may anger many in the community, they will hopefully channel that anger into making meaningful change in New York and elsewhere.

A good graduation speech should be inspiring, it should make students see the world differently, and it should ultimately leave every student questioning what their college taught them and what their role in the world is. A student who hears Bloomberg speak at Williams may realize that he actually did a lot of good for poor people in NYC, it may cause a student who idolized Bloomberg’s business prowess to realize how bad stop and frisk is, and it might inspire a student to go into public service, entrepreneurship, social justice, or none of the above. Maybe the speech would have nothing to do with his political or business experience, and instead would recount lessons he learned at Johns Hopkins. We can’t know unless we give him the opportunity to speak. Not hearing Bloomberg’s speech will not make Stop and Frisk go away, and it won’t make Muslims suddenly not the targets of NYPD surveillance. What it will do is deny students the opportunity to hear from someone with whom they may disagree. It will deny them the chance to maybe have their worldview challenged, or perhaps even changed. But beyond these concerns, denying Mayor Bloomberg the chance to speak would undermine every notion of academic free speech and the free flow of ideas that should be the underlying framework of a liberal arts education.

I don’t want to be a part of an institution that puts its hands over its ears and pretends controversial ideas don’t exist. Instead, I want a graduating class that can happily and excitedly listen to someone like Mayor Bloomberg or Secretary Rice or Ms. Lagarde and turn the lessons from thier speech into something positive – be it a racial justice nonprofit in Harlem, a peaceful career in diplomacy, the next great financial infrastructure company, or a brilliant solution for financing governments in the developing world. Your graduation speaker does not define your college experience or invalidate your worldview, but your inability to merely listen to someone with whom you disagree does seriously call into question your strength as a critical thinker.


– Anonymous






Full Text of President McCartney’s Letter to the Smith Community

Dear Students, Faculty, and Staff:

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 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.


Like so many members of the Smith community, some of whom wrote to me to share their excitement about Mme. Lagarde, I was looking forward to hearing her speech. I stand behind the decision of Smith’s Board of Trustees, of which I am a member, to invite Mme. Lagarde to serve as our speaker and to receive an honorary degree.


With extraordinary generosity, Ruth J. Simmons, Smith’s ninth president and the 18th president of Brown University, will give the 2014 commencement address. I am grateful to Ruth and know that she will bring an important message to our community. More information is available here:

I want to underscore this fact: 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 remain committed to leading a college where differing views can be heard and debated with respect.


Kathleen McCartney

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