Friday, May 16, 2014
NORTHAMPTON — I am an alumna of Smith (class of 1990) and a current faculty member. Some Smith faculty have claimed publicly their primary concern was the lack of public debate about the appropriateness of Christine Lagarde’s selection as Sunday’s commencement speaker.
In fact, there were at least two public forums organized on campus as soon as Lagarde’s selection was announced — one a Feb. 28 panel of faculty from various departments organized by the Global Studies Center, the other a March 10 panel organized by the Study of Women and Gender Program.
As many now know, Lagarde withdrew from the event.
Surprisingly few faculty bothered to attend either of the forums. So the issue really is not a lack of opportunity to engage in debate or discussion on campus about the concerns raised by having the head of the IMF speak at commencement, but a lack of motivation to do so.
That is, until the students’ protests became public beyond Smith’s gates.
One could imagine that a lack of motivation to attend a faculty-organized panel or two derives from a lack of concern about the significance of having the head of the IMF — an organization with a checkered and inglorious record of fomenting policies that have harmed thousands of civilians, often disproportionately women and children in the global south — be presented to Smith’s 2014 graduating class, and their visiting families, as an exemplar of “Women for the World.”
Or perhaps, the students’ concerns weren’t deemed serious enough to warrant engagement and debate until they were successful in their organizing efforts. Indeed, in my view, the report to the faculty at our February meeting characterized the students’ arguments against having Lagarde as their commencement speaker as naive and emotional, rather than as the thoughtful political and ethical statements that they were.
Either way, the failure to engage in an early and broad debate about this year’s speaker is ours as their faculty, and not the students who succeeded in bringing public attention to their concerns.
Because a committed group of students persisted, they have been characterized by some folks as a “minority,” as if being raised by less than a majority of the graduating class delegitimizes the issue itself.
Have we forgotten that historically it has always been a “minority” that has organized and agitated for changes to the status quo that “the majority” was complacent about and comfortable with? Indeed, what seems so radical in the historical moment, is later taken for granted as representative of mainstream ethics.
Clearly, we do not have a singular view of this issue “as a faculty” nor as an institution. Accordingly, we should not be represented as if we do, whether by our new president or the media. The broader mandate for “the faculty” and for the college community in general is to commit in deeds as much as in rhetoric to fostering an institutional culture of debate, democratic and transparent decision making, and the possibility of dissent without fear of reprisal at Smith and beyond its gates.
That is the core premise of and fundamental condition for academic freedom.
This is what these Smith students have modeled for us, and what we should be working on into the future.
Ginetta E.B. Candelario lives in Northampton and is a Smith College faculty member in sociology, Latin American and Latin@ Studies, the Study of Women and Gender Program and the Center for Community Collaboration.