Commencement Speaker Drama – Smith vs. Lagarde

Earlier this week I received an email from Smith College announcing that Ruth Simmons, who was president of Smith when I attended, was to speak at commencement. Having been out of the loop, I at first thought that this was the plan all along and I had just been oblivious. Since then there have been posts on Facebook about what actually happened to the previous speaker, which I’ve been taking in without really forming an opinion. But this morning someone posted a link to this Bloomberg article ( and it got me a little riled up.

Christine Lagarde, the head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), was selected as this year’s commencement speaker. Some Smith College students felt strongly against the IMF and signed a petition to have Smith disinvite her. What ended up happening was that Lagarde withdrew earlier this week. I’m not going to pretend to have an opinion on the IMF. Embarrassingly, I don’t know enough to form an intelligent opinion for or against the IMF and Lagarde. What I do have an opinion about is how the students acted and how Lagarde reacted.

I believe that it’s part of our right in a democracy to protest and sign petitions. I sometimes feel shameful about not standing up or fighting for certain causes because it’s easier to sit on the sidelines and let someone else fight the battle. I hope that these students had enough of the facts to truly understand what and why they were fighting. If they did, then all the power to them for standing behind their convictions.

The aforementioned article from Bloomberg started off with what I thought was a great point about the reality of the world outside the college bubble. However, where I disagree is that it then doesn’t speak to Lagarde making the choice to withdraw. The students have their right to protest, but as adults they need to start understanding that they are going to cross paths with many people that they don’t agree with. In some cases we have the choice to hear them speak or not. Listening to Lagarde would have been an opportunity to be exposed to a differing point of view. Listening doesn’t mean that your view would necessarily be swayed. In some cases it might actually strengthen your conviction.

Lagarde’s choice to withdraw as the commencement speaker comes off just as naive or childish as the article is making the students seem. As far as I can tell there was no expectation of violent protest. Lagarde could have come in and chosen to touch on the topic in question or simply focus on parting words of encouragement and advice as par for the course with commencement speeches. She ended up conceding to what some people say is an entitled generation by letting them win. They might currently feel a victory, but it’s not the reality of how these things will always play out.

I’m not sure if this is true or not, but while a student at Smith, I heard that Nixon didn’t attend his daughter’s Smith graduation because he knew that there would be many protestors and he didn’t want to detract from the graduates’ day. That I can understand. It would likely have been more than students protesting and it would definitely have created a large scene. This weekend’s ceremony with Lagarde would not have been as distracting.

Lagarde had the opportunity to be heard and she chose silence. The silver lining, I suppose, is that the class of 2014 now has the honor of hearing Ruth Summons send them out into the world.

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