Skip to main content

Speeches & Media

Hearing All Voices

Kathleen McCartney, Smith Alumnae Quarterly, Summer 2014

This spring, a movement gained momentum on college and university campuses: subsets of students and faculty, typically on the political left, objecting to commencement speakers whose words, views, actions or organizations they opposed. Brandeis, Harvard, Rutgers and other campuses experienced protests. I watched from the sidelines. And then Smith became part of the story.

Just a week before graduation, Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund—its first woman leader, as well as the first woman to serve as finance minister of a G-8 economy—withdrew as our commencement speaker. She did so in the wake of anti-IMF protests from some faculty and students, including a few who wrote directly to her and asked her not to attend.

"It has become evident," Mme. Lagarde wrote to me, "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."

I am proud to lead an institution where the students and faculty are engaged citizens of the world. I applaud their activism, and I will fight to defend it. When they challenge the status quo, they challenge all stakeholders—students, faculty, staff and alumnae—to reflect, to problem-solve and to act. Campus activism made visible the brutality of the Vietnam War. Student movements brought pressure to bear on apartheid in South Africa. Today, students are raising concerns about environmental sustainability.

At the same time, I cannot condone advocacy that seeks to narrow diversity of thought. The protesters had many choices between acquiescence and rejection of Lagarde as a commencement speaker. They could have asked to meet with her while she was on campus. They could have displayed signs representing their objections. And they could have listened to her and critiqued her speech in public forums. At reunion this year, members of the class of 1964 reminded me of their opposition to their commencement speaker, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, a primary architect of the U.S. role in the Vietnam War. They opposed his selection and his presence by wearing black armbands, but they listened to his speech.

My announcement of Lagarde's withdrawal unleashed a powerful reaction. I received hundreds of messages from students, faculty, staff, alumnae and trustees, the vast majority of whom were deeply upset that the actions and words of a few had removed an opportunity for the many.

When Haverford College's speaker withdrew a day after Lagarde, media rhetoric escalated. New York Times contributing writer Timothy Egan included Smith in a widely circulated essay headlined "The Commencement Bigots." A Wall Street Journal editorial, headlined "Bonfire of the Humanities," described Lagarde's withdrawal as "the latest ritualistic burning of a college-commencement heretic."

Within days of Lagarde's withdrawal, more than 135 Smith faculty members signed a public letter supporting her selection. They underscored my statement to the campus 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.

Faculty reactions focused on the lack of tolerance for divergent views; uninformed condemnation of the IMF; black-and-white versus nuanced thinking; and, for some, an uncomfortable linkage of education and advocacy.

I was deluged with letters from students upset that their peers made Mme. Lagarde feel unwelcome. Many expressed frustration at the marginalization of opinions not in the liberal mainstream. "Part of the educational process is listening to and learning from viewpoints that differ from our own," one said, "and while I admire the conviction of my fellow students and support their right to express their opinions, I am disappointed that they did not take advantage of an opportunity to hear Mme. Lagarde speak."

Alumnae of every generation felt they did not recognize their college. "I am horrified," one wrote, "that Smith College is now counted among the institutions where intellectual rigor has been replaced by political correctness." Another said, "The anti-intellectual and mob mentality that prevailed seems so unworthy of my alma mater."

With extraordinary generosity, Ruth J. Simmons, Smith's ninth president and the 18th president of Brown University, accepted my invitation to deliver the 2014 commencement address; she was already scheduled to receive an honorary degree. It was a remarkable speech. Drawing on her own childhood in the segregated South and her coming of age as an activist and self-described troublemaker, she affirmed both the value of protest and the essential importance of freedom of speech.

"Once you have tasted the bitterness and brutality of being silenced," she said, "it is easy to recognize the danger of undermining free speech."

"One's voice grows stronger in encounters with opposing views," she told the audience. In closing, she cautioned, "Don't complain when the statement of your views leads others to disagree. Implicit in the affirmation of your right to voice your views is your obligation to protect the rights of others to their views."

There is a reason that the First Amendment comes first; it is the bedrock of democracy. We are diminished as a community—and a society—if we refuse to hear words that challenge us or if we shut ourselves off from political views because someone will disagree. As a Boston Globe editorial observed about the wave of campus commencement protests, "It's far better for students to counter speech with more speech." A Smith alumna who wrote to me was even more blunt: "Shutting out speech is not the right answer -- ever."

If there is a silver lining to this experience, it is that a much-needed dialogue has been launched around diversity of thought, at Smith and beyond. In the year ahead, I will be engaging all Smith stakeholders—students, faculty, staff and alumnae—in a wide-ranging discussion of values essential for higher education institutions to uphold: diversity of thought and freedom of speech.

Protesters have every right to express themselves. As Henry Reichman—first vice president and chairman of the Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure at the American Association of University Professors—observed in the New York Times, "As long as they do not prevent a speaker from speaking, those who wish to protest a commencement speaker's presence have as much right to do so as the speaker does to speak."

A form of protest whose aim is to silence a voice rather than engage it has no place at Smith or any other college or university. Smith will be a stronger institution for recognizing this fact: reasonable people are permitted to disagree. In hearing and debating all views we are educated.