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Elisabeth Armstrong: Let’s agree to disagree at college commencements

Close up of a graduation cap and a certificate with a ribbon

Close up of a graduation cap and a certificate with a ribbon

Condoleezza Rice, former National Security Advisor to George W. Bush, echoed Lagarde’s words. Last week she decided not to speak at Rutgers University’s commencement, after students and faculty expressed disapproval of her role in the Iraq War. Rice, like Lagarde, said the commencement should remain a “celebration.” Refusing to speak in the face of potential protests is rare in the history of Smith College and other U.S. colleges and universities. Elizabeth Dole spoke at Smith in 1998, and Madeline Albright did the same in 2003. Both faced some disapproval, and in the case of Albright, a student protest.

Smith College’s new president, Kathleen McCartney described her disappointment with the withdrawal of Lagarde. She reminded the college community of its commitment to “free thought and diversity of opinion.” She suggested that Smith should reconsider the wisdom of publicly registering any disapproval of Lagarde as a speaker.

But commencement is a celebration. It celebrates the development of hard-won knowledge and thoughtful ethics, tested by arguments and counter-arguments, in a rigorous and diverse learning environment. Dissent over who should hold the honor of giving the commencement speech is deeply linked to the celebration in this ceremony.

How did Smith students, if not its faculty, react in the past when the college had virtually no women invited to give the commencement speech? Did students shake their heads over the first 91 years when only four women spoke to them at their graduation? Did they merely fold their hands in their laps in 1955 when Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson told them that women without an education did the best job of raising boys since they weren’t bothered by “broader horizons”? Or in 1961 when correspondent James Reston told Smith graduates he was against female segregated education? Or the following year when United Nations Representative Frances Plimpton advised them to use their education “to instruct your husbands and other admirers as to the issues before the country and as to exactly how they should vote on them”?

The speaker who broke the trend in 1971 gives us some idea. Gloria Steinem had just founded Ms. magazine but did not wield prestige in the corridors of power, nor did she enjoy unabashed approval from sections of the women’s liberation movement. In her commencement address she told Smith graduates about inequalities that no one should accept: of gender, of race and of class. Steinem’s speech demolished the everyday sexism that limited the horizons of Smith graduates. She pushed the largely white audience of women to fight racism as their own feminist fight, and to challenge elitism as a legacy of their own elite advantages.

Steinem did not seek resigned acquiescence from her audience of young Smith graduates, she argued with them. I do not agree with a base assumption that the Smith community’s dissent stifled Lagarde’s speech. It did not. She didn’t want to see or hear our disagreement, so she decided not to join the party. Her choice. She has access to muffled rooms that silence our analysis on a daily basis and has chosen not to leave them.

Elisabeth Armstrong of Northampton is an associate professor at Smith College.

Legacy Comments9

Great article! I applaud everyone involved who had the backbone to stand up against their hard earned celebration of finishing their degrees being stained by having to pretend that a Madeline Albright quoting, austerity peddling, global enforcer of misery should be passively tolerated in case she says something "interesting". Only the comfortably privileged and detached could possibly put forth these convoluted arguments that she is being silenced or that any one is missing out on learning how to gain careers in bleeding the world's poor. Or maybe the woman who scolded the Greek people for not paying their taxes was going to explain how she doesn't pay any taxes on her 1/2 million dollar a year earnings.

Said like a true socialist. Here's a great video for you to watch. Learn something from it Mr. Socialist. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KHA7YXsu110

This article seems disingenuous to me. The first paragraph states, "The letters and petition questioned the role of the International Monetary Fund’s policies in exacerbating global inequality in ways that particularly target women." Well, yes. But what Professor Armstrong does not mention is that the petition called for the invitation to be rescinded. (The headline for the petition was "Reconsider the Smith College 2014 Commencement Speaker.") The protesters weren't looking for a debate, they were looking to avoid hearing a speaker who leads an organization of which they disapprove. Let's not blame Christine Lagarde for giving them the outcome which they sought. I should also add that President McCartney did not suggest "... that Smith should reconsider the wisdom of publicly registering any disapproval of Lagarde as a speaker." Rather she reminded the community that the invitation of a speaker does not constitute an endorsement of all of that speakers positions. This seems a wise reminder, once which the protestors should have considered before they asked for the invitation to be revoked.

Why is John Montanari is suggesting the inference that someone prevented Mme. Legarde? Rather, she declined to make her presentation on behalf of the System of Domination to an audience that included some women who critique it. That would appear to be cowardice on the part of a powerful woman. As Elisabeth Armstrong has pointed out, the Smith commencement offered an opportunity for her as well. It is Christine Legarde who deprived Smith of that opportunity. For the president of the college to suggest that the "community" should keep silent in a commitment to “free thought and diversity of opinion...” is, or ought to be, embarrassing doublespeak.

To think I was speaking out on behalf of the System of Domination -- in capital letters, no less. This is what passes for clear and nuanced thinking? Oy gevalt!

not you little fella, her. Read Walter Wink for clarity and nuance, not the carping section.

Higher education today is less about reasoned discussion and learning than it is about rude behavior towards any view that doesn't match that of the students. For a woman that holds as important and powerful position as Ms. Lagarde to be dissuaded from speaking at such a historical women's college is ridiculous. While not all the students agree with her position and that of the IMF, she is an example of what an intelligent and ambitious woman can accomplish. Spoiled students with degrees that won't lead to well paying jobs could learn a thing or two from her.

"Spoiled students with degrees that won't lead to well paying jobs" Let's just let it sink in how stupid that sounds............................................................................................... You forgot to mention their crippling student debt! Man I wish I had some of that. I would be soooo spoiled. "Higher education today is less about reasoned discussion and learning than it is about rude behavior towards any view that doesn't match that of the students. " Never mind peer-review, scholarship, going to grad school. You are so unbelievably clueless it isn't even funny.

Ms. Lagarde has no doubt been in this situation often enough to know that what she would face this Sunday was not likely to be merely polite dissent. More likely, it would be a shout-down, or at least an attempt at such. Would this be dissent, or an attempt to "silence her analysis"? Nor should Lagarde be held responsible for the comments of Stevenson, Reston, et al. As for Steinem's stirring words, I wasn't there to gauge the students' reaction then, but I do know that such ideas are now very much part of the academic catechism, and no longer require courage to state on most of our campuses -- unlike, for instance, what Ayaan Ali Hirsi would have had to say at Brandeis if permitted. Finally, Ms. Armstrong, how have Lagarde and her "muffled rooms" silenced your analysis? Have you been prevented from writing, publishing or speaking by Christine Lagarde?

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