Facing protest, Smith grad speaker drops out; Simmons to step in

Tuesday, May 13, 2014
NORTHAMPTON — The planned keynote speaker for Smith College’s commencement Sunday dropped out amid student and faculty outcry, saying she did not want controversy over her appearance to detract from the occasion.

In a letter to students, faculty and staff, Smith College president Kathleen McCartney announced Monday that the invited speaker, Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, contacted the school over the weekend to withdraw from delivering the commencement address.

Stepping in will be a familiar face to the campus — Ruth Simmons, former president at both Smith College and Brown University.

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Lagarde was reacting to an online petition that as of Monday afternoon had collected about 479 signatures, which objected to her appearance based on disagreement with the policies of the International Monetary Fund.

“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. At Smith College, a school with a campaign called ‘Women for the World,’ we are taught how to stand up and fight against inequality and corruption. We are taught to speak up when something is unjust, and we do not wish to be represented by a system that doesn’t support us,” the petition states.

But McCartney expressed disappointment at the turn of events, saying: “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,” she wrote. “Moreover, such a test would seem anathema to our core values of free thought and diversity of opinions.”

McCartney said Lagarde had contacted the college over the weekend in writing to announce her decision. McCartney’s note to the college quoted from Lagarde’s letter to her:

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

Lagarde, who has led the IMF since 2011, gave the commencement address at Harvard University’s Kennedy School in 2012 and there was no opposition to her appearance, according to an IMF spokeswoman.

In her letter to the community Monday, McCartney said, “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.”

Precedents there

Lagarde’s move marks the second time this month that a high-profile college commencement speaker dropped out amid student protests and a stated desire to not be a distraction.

Earlier this month Condoleezza Rice canceled her commencement address at Rutgers University, saying her appearance would be a distraction, given opposition from students and faculty.

Last year, IRS official Lois Lerner backed out of her scheduled commencement address at her alma mater, Western New England University Law School in Springfield, amid accusations that the IRS had targeted tea party-affiliated groups, saying she didn’t wish to take focus away from the graduates.

This is only the second time a Smith commencement speaker has withdrawn amid protests, according to the college.

Former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Jeane Kirkpatrick backed out in 1983 after protests from the Smith community, according to a spokesman.

For her part, McCartney said she was looking forward to hearing Lagarde’s speech, as were other members of the Smith community she said wrote to her saying so.

According to Smith College spokesman Sam Masinter, some letters in opposition to Lagarde were sent directly to McCartney and the IMF and there was a protest by about 40 students outside the president’s house in recent days.

Smith College has a student population of about 2,500, according to its website.

Against austerity

Smith College graduate student Kathleen Salmon signed the petition and wrote a letter to the college asking officials to reconsider Lagarde’s invitation to deliver the commencement address.

Salmon, who is completing a master’s degree in the Smith School for Social Work, said she understands the need to invite varied speakers who present opportunities for debate — but she maintains commencement speakers are different.

A commencement speech doesn’t allow for dialogue between the speaker and audience, and attempting to do so would be “disrespectful” to the speaker, Salmon said.

She said her objection to Lagarde’s appearance is based on IMF austerity policies that she said prey on the economies of developing and poor countries and deny social services, human rights and economic opportunities to people.

Salmon said she would have still objected to Lagarde speaking on campus in another capacity, especially if a speaker with an opposing position was not also invited to participate.

The petition states that “by selecting Ms. Lagarde as the commencement speaker, we are supporting the International Monetary Fund and thus going directly against Smith’s values to stand in unity with equality for all women, regardless of race, ethnicity or class. Although we do not wish to disregard all of Ms. Lagarde’s accomplishments as a strong female leader in the world, we also do not want to be represented by someone whose work directly contributes to many of the systems that we are taught to fight against.”

Signers of the petition said they were “disgusted,” and “disappointed” by the choice to have Lagarde speak.

Meanwhile, on the college’s Facebook page, some expressed disappointment that Lagarde chose to withdraw under pressure.

“It’s unfortunate that we could not make enough space for dialogue to have the first female leader of the IMF speak to other future female leaders,” wrote one commenter.

“This is very unfortunate. A liberal arts education is supposed to be about critical thinking and engaging in thoughtful discourse with those whose views you don’t share, not about protesting until someone feels unwelcome on your campus,” wrote another.

According to Masinter, commencement speakers, including Lagarde, are not paid for their appearances.

Anyone in the “Smith community” can nominate someone as a commencement speaker, he said, after which nominations are reviewed by the Committee of Honorary Degrees, consisting of three students, three staff members and three faculty members and chaired by the sitting college president.

Recommendations from that committee are then made to the board of trustees, according to the college.

Actress Jodie Foster dropped out of her scheduled Smith commencement address in 2000, but that was due to a scheduling conflict, according to the college.

Bob Dunn can be reached at bdunn@gazettenet.com.