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Simmons gives Smith College grads thoughts on protest

  • CAROL LOLLIS<br/>Ifetayo Harvey, left, and Anagha Inguva at the end of the Smith College graduation Sunday afternoon.<br/><br/><br/>

    CAROL LOLLIS
    Ifetayo Harvey, left, and Anagha Inguva at the end of the Smith College graduation Sunday afternoon.


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  • CAROL LOLLIS<br/>Sushila Gezik takes a selfie with her daughter, Rebekah Renfro who was graduating from Smith College Sunday afternoon.<br/><br/><br/>

    CAROL LOLLIS
    Sushila Gezik takes a selfie with her daughter, Rebekah Renfro who was graduating from Smith College Sunday afternoon.


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  • CAROL LOLLIS<br/>Graduates at the Smith College commencement Sunday afternoon.<br/><br/><br/>

    CAROL LOLLIS
    Graduates at the Smith College commencement Sunday afternoon.


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  • CAROL LOLLIS<br/>Left front, Chantil Furlonge, her mother in white, Louise Furlonge and aunt in the back in yellow, cheer for Mylasha Furlonge during the processional at the Smith College graduation Sunday afternoon.<br/><br/><br/>

    CAROL LOLLIS
    Left front, Chantil Furlonge, her mother in white, Louise Furlonge and aunt in the back in yellow, cheer for Mylasha Furlonge during the processional at the Smith College graduation Sunday afternoon.


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  • CAROL LOLLIS<br/>Eric Carle gets an honorary degree at the Smith College graduation Sunday afternoon.<br/><br/><br/>

    CAROL LOLLIS
    Eric Carle gets an honorary degree at the Smith College graduation Sunday afternoon.


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  • CAROL LOLLIS<br/>Sibyl Brown cheers during the  Smith College graduation Sunday afternoon.<br/><br/><br/>

    CAROL LOLLIS
    Sibyl Brown cheers during the Smith College graduation Sunday afternoon.


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  • CAROL LOLLIS<br/>Angelica Martinez cheers for Ruth Simmons at the Smith College graduation Sunday afternoon.<br/><br/><br/>

    CAROL LOLLIS
    Angelica Martinez cheers for Ruth Simmons at the Smith College graduation Sunday afternoon.


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  • CAROL LOLLIS<br/>Taylor Shaw after receiving her diploma at the Smith College graduation Sunday afternoon.<br/><br/><br/>

    CAROL LOLLIS
    Taylor Shaw after receiving her diploma at the Smith College graduation Sunday afternoon.


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  • CAROL LOLLIS<br/>Katherine Sumner after receiving her diploma at the Smith College graduation Sunday afternoon.<br/><br/><br/><br/>

    CAROL LOLLIS
    Katherine Sumner after receiving her diploma at the Smith College graduation Sunday afternoon.



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  • CAROL LOLLIS<br/>at the Smith College graduation Sunday afternoon.<br/><br/><br/>

    CAROL LOLLIS
    at the Smith College graduation Sunday afternoon.


    Purchase photo reprints »

  • CAROL LOLLIS<br/>at the Smith College graduation Sunday afternoon.<br/><br/><br/>

    CAROL LOLLIS
    at the Smith College graduation Sunday afternoon.


    Purchase photo reprints »

  • CAROL LOLLIS<br/>Ifetayo Harvey, left, and Anagha Inguva at the end of the Smith College graduation Sunday afternoon.<br/><br/><br/>
  • CAROL LOLLIS<br/>Sushila Gezik takes a selfie with her daughter, Rebekah Renfro who was graduating from Smith College Sunday afternoon.<br/><br/><br/>
  • CAROL LOLLIS<br/>Graduates at the Smith College commencement Sunday afternoon.<br/><br/><br/>
  • CAROL LOLLIS<br/>Left front, Chantil Furlonge, her mother in white, Louise Furlonge and aunt in the back in yellow, cheer for Mylasha Furlonge during the processional at the Smith College graduation Sunday afternoon.<br/><br/><br/>
  • CAROL LOLLIS<br/>Eric Carle gets an honorary degree at the Smith College graduation Sunday afternoon.<br/><br/><br/>
  • CAROL LOLLIS<br/>Sibyl Brown cheers during the  Smith College graduation Sunday afternoon.<br/><br/><br/>
  • CAROL LOLLIS<br/>Angelica Martinez cheers for Ruth Simmons at the Smith College graduation Sunday afternoon.<br/><br/><br/>
  • CAROL LOLLIS<br/>Taylor Shaw after receiving her diploma at the Smith College graduation Sunday afternoon.<br/><br/><br/>
  • CAROL LOLLIS<br/>Katherine Sumner after receiving her diploma at the Smith College graduation Sunday afternoon.<br/><br/><br/><br/>
  • CAROL LOLLIS<br/>at the Smith College graduation Sunday afternoon.<br/><br/><br/>
  • CAROL LOLLIS<br/>at the Smith College graduation Sunday afternoon.<br/><br/><br/>

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.”

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