After Protests, IMF Leader Declines To Speak At Smith College Commencement

A rash of student and faculty protests led Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), to bow out on Wednesday from her arrangement to be Smith College’s commencement speaker for the class of 2014.

Smith College president Kathleen McCartney announced Lagarde’s decision, prompting her to invite former Smith College president Ruth Simmons to fill in at the dais.

McCartney began her statement by recounting the note she’d recently received from Lagarde explaining her reticence:

“In the last few days, 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.”

Those who objected will be satisfied that their activism has had a desired effect. But at what cost to Smith College? This is a question I hope we will ponder as a community in the months ahead.

Like so many members of the Smith community, some of whom wrote to me to share their excitement about Mme. Lagarde, I was looking forward to hearing her speech. I stand behind the decision of Smith’s Board of Trustees, of which I am a member, to invite Mme. Lagarde to serve as our speaker and to receive an honorary degree.

… 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.

That respect for differing views led those members of the Smith College opposed to the IMF to start the following online petition signed by hundreds:

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. Although we do not wish to disregard all of Ms. Lagarde’s accomplishments as a strong female leader in the world, we also do not want to be represented by someone whose work directly contributes to many of the systems that we are taught to fight against. By having her speak at our commencement, we would be publicly supporting and acknowledging her, and thus the IMF. Even if we give Ms. Lagarde the benefit of the doubt, and recognize that she is just a good person working in a corrupt system, we should not by any means promote or encourage the values and ideals that the IMF fosters. 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. At Smith College, a school with a campaign called “Women for the World”, we are taught how to stand up and fight against inequality and corruption. We are taught to speak up when something is unjust, and we do not wish to be represented by a system that doesn’t support us.

One student, Katherine Sumner, noted on the Web site that “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. 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.”

According to MSNBC, Lagarde, 58, is one of the world’s most powerful women, “who broke many glass ceilings” as a French international law attorney and ultimately that country’s finance minister. She also is the first woman to lead the IMF.

Just a week ago, Condoleezza Rice, secretary of state under former President George W. Bush, decided not to speak at Rutgers University’s graduation ceremony after anti-war protests soiled her prospect as well.

[Image courtesy of the IMF]