It seemed the perfect choice: one of the most powerful women in the world chosen as commencement speaker for a college founded in 1871 with the goal of proving women were the equal of men.
But Christine Lagarde is out as the planned 2014 commencement speaker at Smith College, withdrawing after a protest campaign that labeled the organization she leads, the International Monetary Fund, as a supporter of economic policies that oppress and abuse women.
Smith College President Kathleen McCartney on Monday lamented that a tiny but vocal “minority have prevailed.” In a telephone interview, she voiced respect for the student activists but disagreed with their opposition.
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“It’s great that we have an engaged group of students. I love the student activism,” said McCartney. “But, it’s really important for us to cultivate open-mindedness. There is nothing more important than freedom of inquiry and freedom of thought… It’s crucial for colleges and universities to be marketplaces for ideas.”
McCartney told The Fiscal Times that the overwhelming majority of the Smith community was disappointed. “Since this morning, I’ve been inundated with emails from faculty, students and alumni… More than 90 percent are disappointed.”
Lagarde is the first woman to serve as IMF managing director. As finance minister of France, she also was the first woman to hold the top job in a G8 economy. While supporters viewed Lagarde as a perfect speaker for Smith because of her trailblazing career, those driving the petition campaign argued just the opposite.
A protest letter signed by nearly 500 Smith students and faculty claimed IMF policies have led to a “strengthening of imperialist and patriarchal systems that oppress and abuse women worldwide.”
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“By selecting Ms. Lagarde as the commencement speaker we are supporting the International Monetary Fund and thus going directly against Smith’s values to stand in unity with equality for all women, regardless of race, ethnicity or class,” the petition said.
“The IMF has been a primary culprit in the failed developmental policies implanted in some of the world’s poorest countries. This has led directly to the strengthening of imperialist and patriarchal systems that oppress and abuse women worldwide.”
In a weekend letter to President McCartney, Lagarde wrote, “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.”
In an online posting supporting the petition, Katherine Sumner, a graduating senior at Smith, said that it was in a Smith classroom where she first learned about the “problems that the IMF has wrought on the Global South, and how those problems have affected women's lives for the worse.”
Diana Watson, a Smith sophomore, wrote she was “utterly disgusted” by the decision to invite Lagarde, arguing the IMF has “proven itself to be nothing but imperialistic, ineffective, and oppressive.”
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Elizabeth Mugar Eveillard, Faculty Director of Smith’s Lewis Global Studies Center, argued that it was hardly that black and white. She thought inviting Lagarde was an opportunity to “educate ourselves and each other about the IMF and about complicated, difficult issues.” As she put it, “It’s what a liberal arts education is about.”
Smith senior Cassandra Brazile echoed that point. “Because we do not agree with someone, does it mean that we cannot listen to them?" Brazile wrote on a Facebook page hosted by the college. "So disappointed. This woman inherited the problems of the IMF and was bullied by Smith College students because of their lack of understanding,” she said.
Lagarde is the latest casualty of campus protests against high profile speakers this spring.
Just two weeks ago, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pulled out as Rutgers University’s commencement speaker because of protests about her role in the Iraq war and post 9-11 "enhanced interrogation" techniques critics see as torture.
In April, Brandeis University reversed its decision to give Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born women’s rights activist, an honorary degree after word spread that she said, “Islam is the new fascism.” Ms. Hirsi’s reaction: that the university wanted her “to be silenced.”
Then there’s Robert J. Birgeneau, former chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, who faced criticism for his support of undocumented and minority students. He pulled out of Haverford College’s ceremony after refusing to meet student’s demands that he first publicly apologize.
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