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Why Students Are Right to Protest at Commencement

Dear President McCartney,

I am a member of the Smith College class of 2005, and I am writing in response to your comment on Christine Lagarde’s decision to withdraw as Smith’s 2014 commencement speaker. You write, “Those who objected will be satisfied that their activism has had a desired effect. But at what cost to Smith College?” I’m sure I’m not alone in hearing some scolding in that question. I hope you will hear my response.

While a student, I spent two years assisting with commencement activities. During one of those years the speaker was former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, whose invitation was likewise opposed by students and faculty. I had the pleasure of meeting Albright at the president’s house. (I admired her brooch!) Certainly brunch is no place to begin a spirited debate, but I don’t recall any other space created to respectfully discuss Albright’s ideas. Why, then, were alumnae and administrators so surprised and disappointed when some graduating seniors silently stood and turned their backs during her speech? Such an action seemed to me the very height of what Albright herself said that day—that graduates now have to rely on their inner moral and ethical compasses, “and whether that compass is true will determine whether you become a drifter who is blown about by every breeze; or a doer, determined to chart your own course and unafraid, when necessary, to set sail against the strongest wind.”

Now, more than a decade later, I’m interested in the rhetoric that has emerged in the wake of Lagarde’s withdrawal, as well as similar decisions by those slated to speak at Haverford College, Brandeis University, and Rutgers University, particularly the  notion of a free exchange of ideas and the importance of, as you put it, “diversity of opinion” and respectful debate.

You are right, of course, that 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,” and that “such a test would seem anathema to our core values of freedom of thought and diversity of opinion.” What I want to suggest is that protesting a commencement speaker is not an endorsement of censorship or in opposition to academic freedom. I have trouble understanding what constitutes a free exchange of ideas when a commencement speech inherently and explicitly does not include space for a response.  In this context, protest is the only means of responding, and opposition becomes a vigorous, if unwieldy, expression of the kind of exchange institutions like Smith should prize.

And this protest does not represent an unwillingness to hear differing viewpoints. Lagarde’s prominence ensures that her ideas are in wide circulation. I suspect that most of those who objected to the invitation are familiar with Lagarde’s views—and I suspect that many in the Smith community, and elsewhere, are far less familiar with the views of those who oppose her.

How we view student protestors at Smith, Haverford, and elsewhere does not square with our commitment to the free exchange of ideas, nor with the expressed value, particularly at a women’s college, of inculcating such a commitment in young women.  To assume that students are acting because they cannot tolerate difficult views suggests a lack of confidence in a liberal-arts institution’s ability to produce graduates who can respond intelligently to challenging ideas. If the members of the class of 2014—or even a significant minority of them—are leaving Smith without those skills, we need to ask where the institution has failed them.

I don’t think they are, and I don’t think Smith has. If anything, this protest suggests that the college has excelled in its stated goal of allowing “students to observe different models of achievement, then set their own course with conviction.” Those who opposed Lagarde’s invitation have been well prepared to “fulfill their responsibilities to the local, national and global communities in which they live.” You might not like the way they fulfill those responsibilities, but you ought to respect their independence of mind and character.

The implication that protestors do not join you in wanting the college to be a place where “differing views can be heard and debated with respect” is unfair.  I doubt you meant to suggest that students who, at least in the case of commencements, have no recourse to meaningful and respectful debate ought to simply listen without objection or response to a speaker whose ideas offend them. I don’t believe that they should. Even if their response is embarrassing to the college. Even if it might be rude.

These students exemplify the meaning and value of a Smith education. They understand that they cannot wait for an invitation to speak up. They know, as Frederick Douglass wrote, that “power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and it never will.” We should applaud those who face the dais (and sometimes turn their backs to it) as much as we applaud those who speak from it; sometimes we should applaud them more. To speak back to the place you love—to the place that has been your home—requires courage, insight, and intelligence. We should be proud of them.

Yours,

Jacqui Shine ’05

Jacqui Shine is a Ph.D. candidate in U.S. history at the University of California at Berkeley and a columnist at Vitae.

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