Editorial: A suggested text for Smith College’s fill-in commencement speaker

Last modified: Friday, May 16, 2014

Smith College did well to invite a former president, Ruth Simmons, to deliver Sunday’s commencement address after a protest by faculty members and a minority of the student body prompted International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde to bow out.

Simmons is particularly well-equipped to address those who deplore Lagarde’s connection to an organization they say “has led directly to the strengthening of imperialist and patriarchal systems that oppress and abuse women worldwide.” The 12th child of east Texas sharecroppers, Simmons did not let her modest roots and this nation’s endemic racism and sexism stand in the way of her earning a doctorate at Harvard, playing a pioneering role as the president of Smith from 1995 to 2001 and becoming the first African-American president of an Ivy League university when she moved on to Brown.

Simmons knows what it takes to meet oppression and rise above it. So perhaps on Sunday she will stand before the Class of 2014 and deliver an address that goes something like this:

“Women of Smith, my heart fills as I look out at your bright eyes and consider the promise they hold. As I strode across the green lawns this morning, I was transported back to my own years here, working with your predecessors as they sharpened their minds and broadened their imaginations. And I remembered with particular pride the way Smith prepares women to engage in the vigorous exchange of ideas that fuels every kind of meaningful advance.

“But for all the blue sky above us on this lovely day, I also see a cloud. It is not a physical cloud but an intellectual, emotional — and perhaps even spiritual — one. This cloud comes not from the condensation of water but from the calcification of ideas. It is carried not by the fresh spring breezes, but by the ill winds of conversations foreclosed.

“As you all know, I was not supposed to be your speaker on this milestone day. You were to hear from Christine Lagarde, France’s former economic minister and the first woman to lead the International Monetary Fund. But in response to a protest by some members of the Smith student and faculty community, Ms. Lagarde decided last weekend to withdraw as commencement speaker. As pleased as I am to share this day with you, I cannot deny my disappointment at the events that brought us to this place.

“Let me be clear that I have no complaint with those who voiced strong objections to the IMF and its leadership. Many thoughtful and caring people — here and around the world — have raised questions about the way the IMF has demanded a harsh brand of economic austerity from countries receiving aid in the developing world. Such measures land particularly hard on the most vulnerable citizens — often, women and children.

“No, such questions should be raised, and what better place than here at Smith? My regret is that they were framed in a way that shut down dialogue rather than inviting it. When she canceled her trip here, Ms. Lagarde said she did not want debate over the IMF to spoil what is designed to be a day of celebration. And indeed, it would have been unfortunate if that controversy had so colored this day as to interfere with the joy that greets your accomplishments here and, soon, in the wider world.

“But imagine the fruitful — and yes, difficult — conversation this community might have had if Ms. Lagarde had come not just to speak at this celebration but to take questions in economics classrooms, to meet with the leaders of the protest, to hold a community meeting at which she could have taken hard questions and articulated her plans for improving the lot of women worldwide.

“How dismaying that she walked so quickly away from that opportunity. How disappointing that members of the Smith community — which is to say, all of us — did not do more to persuade her to stay the course. Surely, Ms. Lagarde would have had ideas to share. And surely, women of Smith, we could have sent her away with even more.”


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