Malini Mehra: Smith College must not become debate-free zone

Last modified: Saturday, June 14, 2014

NORTHAMPTON — Last month I came back to Smith, a quarter century after graduation. Talk of the Lagarde Affair was all around and I reflected on my own commencement speaker from 1989.

John Kenneth Galbraith was a noted economist and former U.S. ambassador to my country, India. What did a white American male have to say to an Indian lesbian feminist? Quite a bit it turned out. In his address, Galbraith remarked that no one remembers commencement speeches.

But I did. His words exhorting us to challenge institutional truths and comfort the afflicted, while we afflict the comfortable rang true for me then and have resonated down the years. I invoke them often and they guide my work.

I came to Smith a girl from Calcutta and left a woman of the world. I arrived intending to major in computer science and economics because it was the expected thing to do. I left with a double major in government and women’s studies because it was the right thing to do. My Smith education helped me make the right choices. It encouraged me to challenge and think independently. Not by comforting myself with others who thought just like me. But by challenging myself with those whose views were different to mine.

During my years at Smith I was exposed to many I admired. Not just Americans such as Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, Catherine Mckinnon and Carl Sagan, but also non-Americans such as Liv Ullman, Rigoberta Menchu and Vandana Shiva.

I was also exposed to those who held different belief systems to mine. Speakers such as Robert McNamara and Oliver North. It was an essential and irreducible part of my education. Without it my intellectual range and understanding of humanity would have been diminished. The world is not black or white. The world is complex and Smith would be failing in its mission if it did not prepare students for complexity. One of the best ways is through exposure to difference.

Given this, I was surprised at the campaign against Lagarde as Smith’s commencement speaker and her ultimate withdrawal. I was not surprised at the protest. The IMF is a controversial institution and students have a right to protest. They are not the first to protest and will not be the last.

In my freshman year, we blockaded College Hall as part of the divestment campaign against apartheid South Africa. It brought results. The only result this protest seems to have secured is several column inches in newspapers and the loss as speaker of one of the world’s most powerful women at an institution committed to women’s leadership. An ironic “own goal.”

I have to confess more than an academic interest. As a student activist I was involved in development issues and the Bretton Woods Institutions. One of my first jobs after Smith was to help start a campaign against the IMF. At graduate school my master’s thesis was on the impact of the IMF’s structural adjustment programs on women and poverty in India. After almost three decades of activism inside and outside institutions as campaigner, policy-maker, adviser and entrepreneur, I know we have made inroads.

Lagarde is one of our results. There are now more women inside these institutions who see themselves as change agents. Many in senior positions and challenging and changing from the inside.

For many of us who have been on the barricades the change is astonishing. Of course it is not enough. We need continued radical activism on the outside to keep the process honest. Equally we need powerful change agents on the inside to make it effective. Leadership is key. Lagarde could have spoken to these strategies for change: the synergy between inside-outside efforts for institutional change.

When I graduated in the revolutionary year of 1989, the dominant worldview was still state- and ideology-led, dichotomous and simplistic. Since then much has changed — we live in a multipolar world of vastly different geopolitical realities where multi-stakeholder alliances between governments, business and NGOs are now the norm.

This would have been unrecognizable to Galbraith. While his dictum to challenge institutional truths remains true today, our strategies for change are different and richer now.

Through protest comes change. The Lagarde Affair must lead to reflection at Smith and in the wider community, not a debate-free zone. Smith is a place for open minds not intellectual bigotry.

True education can only take place where conversation is free and fearless with unshakeable norms of civility.

Malini Mehra, a member of Smith College’s Class of 1989, lives and works in London.


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