The commencement speaker purity bug has hit Smith College.
The Northampton, Mass., women’s college announced Monday that International Monetary Fund managing director Christine Lagarde has withdrawn as the school’s 2014 commencement speaker due to faculty and student protests over the IMF’s policies.
The decision to withdraw — announced by Smith College President Kathleen McCartney — comes less than a week before the ceremony on May 18.
“In the last few days,” Lagarde wrote, according to McCartney, “it has become evident that a number of students and faculty members would not welcome me as a commencement speaker. I respect their views, and I understand the vital importance of academic freedom. However, to preserve the celebratory spirit of commencement day, I believe it is best to withdraw my participation.”
Lagarde is one of the most accomplished and powerful women in the world. She has made history several times — as the first female head of the IMF, the first female finance minister of a G8 nation and the first female chairman of international law firm Baker & McKenzie.
Critics of the IMF argue the organization has had a damaging influence on the economies of developing nations.
Here’s a sampling of some of the Facebook comments that accompanied Smith’s February announcement of Lagarde as speaker:
The outcry was followed by an online petition that had garnered 479 signatures at the time of publication.
The number is small, and it’s impossible to know how many were in Smith’s 672-person graduating class. But Lagarde took serious note of the petition — and personal messages she said she received from Smith students and staff.
To recap the recent history of commencement speaker controversies:
Former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice withdrew as Rutgers‘ commencement speaker this year after outcry from students and faculty, who objected to her role in the Iraq War. (For Rice, this is a common hurdle. Last month, online petitioners boycotted tech startup Dropbox for the same reason after the company added Rice to its board of directors.)
Similarly, former deputy secretary of state Robert Zoellick withdrew last year as commencement speaker at his own alma mater, Swarthmore College, after students objected to his role in the Iraq War.
After well-respected pediatric neurosurgeon Ben Carson became a conservative star because of his critical and often controversial comments about President Obama and the Affordable Care Act, Johns Hopkins University students protested his selection as their 2013 commencement speaker; shortly thereafter, he withdrew.
Even first lady Michelle Obama, who is widely popular across the country, faced a petition signed by thousands of students against her plans to speak at a high school commencement in Topeka, Kansas.
At colleges and universities, particularly liberal arts institutions like Smith, these moments often raise uncomfortable questions about what, if any, responsibility they have to protect or foster dissident viewpoints.
In her statement announcing Lagarde’s decision with “regret,” McCartney, the Smith president, was deliberate in including a fair amount of chastisement:
I want to underscore this fact: An invitation to speak at a commencement is not an endorsement of all views or policies of an individual or the institution she or he leads. Such a test would preclude virtually anyone in public office or position of influence. Moreover, such a test would seem anathema to our core values of free thought and diversity of opinion. I remain committed to leading a college where differing views can be heard and debated with respect.
While there isn’t unanimity even within fairly ideologically liberal universities about the balance between “values” and intellectual freedom, many undergraduates — particularly those who participate in these types of protest — differ from their administrators on the issue.
In a recent editorial, Sandra Y.L. Korn, a Harvard undergraduate student, went so far as to suggest the concept of academic freedom should give way to “justice”:
Yet the liberal obsession with “academic freedom” seems a bit misplaced to me. After all, no one ever has “full freedom” in research and publication. …
Instead, I would like to propose a more rigorous standard: one of “academic justice.” When an academic community observes research promoting or justifying oppression, it should ensure that this research does not continue.
The power to enforce academic justice comes from students, faculty and workers organizing together to make our universities look as we want them to. Two years ago, when former summer school instructor Subramanian Swamy published hateful commentary about Muslims in India, the Harvard community organized to ensure that he would not return to teach on campus.
I consider that sort of organizing both appropriate and commendable.
On the other hand, the rise of armchair (or hashtag) activism in this instance and in others– like the recent #bringbackourgirls campaign or the #Kony2012 trend — raise real questions about its efficacy and its real reach, given the relatively low investment it requires.
Will ousting Lagarde as Smith commencement speaker undo the perceived ills of the IMF? Probably not. But it all but ensures that Lagarde’s perspective won’t be represented at Smith on Sunday.