This year, campus protests forced the withdrawal of a number of commencement speakers, including Condoleezza Rice and the head of the International Monetary Fund. The protesters, in turn, have come in for a lot of criticism. But they stand by their actions.
Rutgers University Professor Deepa Kumar explains why protests began there after the board of governors announced in February that Rice would be the commencement speaker.
“We were all dismayed not only because we played no role as faculty and students at Rutgers in this important decision, but also because we felt that Rice as national security adviser and, later, secretary of state had lied to the American public about the Iraq War, a war that cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and more than 4,000 U.S. soldiers,” she says. “We also thought it wrong that Rice be awarded an Honorary Degree of Laws given not only the Iraq War, but also her sanctioning of torture.”
Activists started organizing immediately and brought in History Professor Jackson Lears to speak before the board of governors on Rice and torture, Kumar says. The board refused him permission to speak, and the proposed speech was then widely circulated. What really gave the campaign momentum was a big student protest this month.
“In early May, students staged a sit-in, and later that week they attended the faculty senate meeting in large numbers,” Kumar says. “Backed up by the faculty, students one by one challenged Rutgers University President Robert Barchi about his selection of Rice and Rice’s record.”
Feeling the heat, Rice decided to bow out, issuing a face-saving public statement.
“I am honored to have served my country,” she stated. “I have defended America’s belief in free speech and the exchange of ideas. These values are essential to the health of our democracy.”
New York Times columnist Timothy Egan chastised Rutgers for chilling free speech.
But Kumar disputed the charge that Rice’s free speech rights were infringed upon.
“My colleagues and I have been accused of being racists for having denied ‘free speech’ to a black woman,” she says. “What they fail to note is that Rice’s press statement withdrawing from Rutgers was covered by the national and international news media, while we have no such access. The argument about free speech is a red herring because the powerful in any society have unrestricted access to the corporate media, while dissenters are rarely allowed space in the mainstream.”
IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde also pulled out of her commencement speech at Smith College.
“It was in a Smith classroom that I 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,” Smith College student Katherine Sumner commented in an online petition. “As a graduating senior, I would be disappointed, to say the least, if a representative of that institution were honored and endorsed by a community that I am a part of.”
Lagarde has tried to put a humane sheen on the IMF. But the IMF is still imposing policies around the world that have a disproportionately negative impact on women and children.
“The three horsemen of the apocalypse of organized hunger are the WTO, the IMF, and to a lesser extent, the World Bank,” former U.N. Special Rapporteur on the right to food Jean Ziegler writes in his recent book, “Betting on Famine: Why the World Still Goes Hungry.”
The third speaker to withdraw from giving a commencement address was ex-Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, who was forced to back down from speaking at Haverford College, a Quaker institution in Pennsylvania. The protesters criticized Birgeneau’s handling of Occupy Wall Street protests, even as they acknowledged his laudable efforts to improve access to affordable education and help undocumented students.
“We are deeply disturbed by the events at U.C. Berkeley on November 9th, 2011, as well as your statements that followed,” they stated in an open letter. “They do not seem to fit with our values that see peace and community as things we must build in every moment. You supported U.C. Berkeley police in the use of extreme force against nonviolent protesters, asserted that linking arms is not a form of nonviolent protest, and suggested that the protesters got exactly what they were looking for. We doubt that any of these peaceful protesters were looking for broken ribs.”
Birgeneau’s replacement William Bowen, former president of Princeton, scolded protesters for being “immature” and “arrogant.”
But Kumar doesn’t see it that way. She says the protests are part of a “fight for a more democratic university and shared collective governance.”