Simmons gives Smith College grads thoughts on protest

Monday, May 19, 2014
NORTHAMPTON — Without addressing the substance of the controversy that prompted Smith College’s original speaker to withdraw, former president Ruth Simmons called Sunday on the class of 2014 to “fight for the jangling discord of learning at its best.”

Simmons told the 734 graduates and their well-wishers who filled the residential quadrangle for the 136th commencement ceremonies that she is an admirer of Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund. Simmons was called in at the last minute to fill in as the commencement speaker when Lagarde withdrew in response to an online petition objecting to her choice as speaker because of IMF policies some students said harmed women and poor people around the globe.

Simmons expressed hope that the college would invite Lagarde to campus in the future and that she would accept.

She said this was not the first time she had filled in for an indisposed speaker, recalling the time George Washington University asked her to stand in for then Vice President Dick Cheney. That time, she said, the opportunity to substitute her ideas and perspectives for those of someone she “vehemently” disagreed with on most political issues brought a “sly smile” to her face, in spite of the fact that the GWU campus “was abuzz with disappointment” over the substitution.

“This is not the same motivation that is behind my smile today,” said Simmons, who after leaving Smith went on to become the first African-American to lead an Ivy League school as president of Brown University from 2001 to 2012.

Her speech centered on the importance of protest in her own personal and academic development, going back to when the administration of her alma mater threatened to deny her a degree for boycotting compulsory chapel services. Forcing students to attend a Christian ceremony, she believed, was unfair to those of other faiths. Her stance “confounded the leadership” of Dillard University, a historically black institution, because all the students at the college were Christians.

A cheer went up in the crowd as Simmons said that in her “youthful ardor,” her idealism meant more to her than the approval of the authorities in her life.

“Personal conviction is essential in ameliorating injustice” and in “challenging institutions that oppress and addressing inequities that destroy human relations,” she told the audience. More cheers when up as she encouraged the graduates to “accept the disapproval that comes from expressing unpopular views.”

Preceding Simmons on the podium was Provost and Dean of Faculty Marilyn Schuster, who presented honorary degrees to Simmons and four others. They included Eric Carle, the prolific illustrator and author of picture books for children, such as the classic “The Very Hungry Caterpillar.” Another recipient was Ela Bhatt, who founded a grassroots trade union for women in India that today has an estimated 1.7 million members. Also recognized were philanthropist Swanee Hunt, who served as ambassador to Austria in the Clinton administration, and Evelyn Fox Keller, a philosopher and scientist who writes on issues of gender and is known for her feminist critique of science.

The 2014 “Honored Professor Award” went to Donald Baumer, who has taught in the government department since 1977.

Reactions to Simmons’ speech among the students were positive, even though some were sorry that Lagarde bowed out. Among those was Sonali Kumar, who majored in government. “I understand that a lot of people were uncomfortable” with the choice of Lagarde, she said, but finding a commencement speaker that “supports everybody’s views would be impossible.”

Elizabeth Pratt Jackson, who majored in psychology, did not feel strongly one way or the other on the protest against Lagarde’s presence. But she had friends on both sides of the issue, causing tension on campus in the week leading up to graduation. She praised the way Simmons handled the controversy. “I’m glad we got a speaker who commented on both sides and made us feel good about what happened.”

Rosie Alig, also a psychology major, said she loved Simmons’ speech, adding that she was “selfishly relieved that there was someone who reflected the humanity and compassion that leadership espouses.”