Ifetayo Harvey: Why students pushed back at Smith over commencement speaker Christine Lagarde

Last modified: Thursday, May 15, 2014

NORTHAMPTON — In February, the Smith College campus learned that the director of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde, would speak at commencement. After receiving the announcement via Twitter, hundreds of students and alumnae signed a petition, and hundreds of students expressed concern with the choice.

Many students and alumnae wrote the administration with concerns that since 2002, all of the commencement speakers have been white. Many students and faculty also addressed their discomfort with having a person from the International Monetary Fund speak at commencement, knowing that the IMF’s policies benefit the rich, while hurting women and the environment.

In February, a group of 13 students met with administrators to discuss this choice and were told that “if Christine Lagarde was a person of color, you wouldn’t have a problem with her.”

During this same meeting, students demanded that there be more transparency in how commencement speakers are picked. On May 2, approximately 60 students rallied in front of the President’s House during a Board of Trustees dinner expressing their frustration with the lack of dialogue over the commencement choice.

In a May 12 campus-wide letter, President Kathy McCartney attempted to reaffirm her commitment “to leading a college where differing views can be heard and debated with respect.” Yet since February, President McCartney has refused to publicly acknowledge and create dialogue about students’ differing views of the IMF being an organization that does not represent Smith’s values.

Combined with the economic casualties enabled by the IMF towards people of color and women around the world, the choice of Lagarde as Smith’s commencement speaker is a poor one.

Within the IMF, the number of votes a country has depends on its level of financial contribution. The United States holds 17 percent of the vote in the IMF with the seven most industrialized countries holding 45 percent of the vote. Some scholars claim that the IMF’s macroeconomic policies are most damaging to women, as these policies uphold inequalities, and make finding work for women more difficult.

When the IMF lends developing countries money, stipulations are included in the loan package. Many of the IMF’s policies require countries to cut state spending, which results in a decrease in social services and jobs. Women are most affected by the policies, because in many developing countries, women work most of the low-paying jobs, yet are primary providers for their families.

Knowing these facts, it is difficult for many Smith seniors to understand why a women’s college would invite a speaker that represents and upholds the degradation of women worldwide.

If anything, the choice of this speaker has confirmed many suspicions: that minority students are wanted at face value in elite college settings but elite colleges like Smith are not ready to fully embrace people of color.

For an institution that takes pride in the diversity of its student body, Smith College has only chosen white women as the commencement speakers for the past 12 years.

Yet there are many women of color who are accomplished and continue to be overlooked when considering powerful, successful and inspirational women.

The choice of Lagarde as commencement speaker is at odds with the newly created Women for the World campaign, which purports to empower and uplift women worldwide.

Her selection perpetuates the idea that Smith is an exclusive institution seeking to conflate its ideals with the IMF, an organization with imperialistic roots that holds developing countries as economic hostages.

While Lagarde holds great power, holding power does not equate to righteousness.

We are pleased with the invitation of former Smith College President Ruth J. Simmons to speak at Sunday’s commencement and hope that this marks a turning point in Smith’s recognition of its role in global issues.

Ifetayo Harvey is a senior at Smith College in Northampton.


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