On May 12 I woke up to an email from Smith College president, Kathleen McCartney, informing us of Christine Lagarde's decision to withdraw as the 2014 commencement speaker. Her decision, we were told, was due to anti-International Monetary Fund (IMF) protests across campus and a petition with over 400 signatures.
Disappointment in my fellow Smith students is an understatement. While I applaud the fervor of this activism and deeply believe in the power of protests to enact change, the negative responses to Madame Lagarde were misguided and mishandled.
A commencement address presents accomplished citizens and leaders with the opportunity to share their experiences, thoughts and advice to a wide-eyed graduating class waiting to enter the 'real world.'
But those protesting Madame Lagarde as commencement speaker used this opportunity to protest the "colonialist" and "neo-liberal" institution she represents. These student protesters chose this opportunity to, fight the "oppressive and elitist" policies Madame Lagarde inherited when she assumed her position as Managing Director of the IMF in 2011. These students chose to fight for silence.
Yet, what many of my fellow classmates failed to realize, was that Madame Lagarde would have spoken to us as a woman, as an accomplished, internationally recognized leader who has overcome the patriarchal structure of our society. She was not coming to speak to us as Chief of the IMF.
As President McCartney conveyed to us in an email, "an invitation to speak at a commencement is not an endorsement of all views of policies of an individual or the institution he or she leads."
At Smith, professors emphasize the need for disparate opinions and encourage substantive debate. Our mission statement affirms that, "Smith is committed to access and diversity, recruiting and supporting talented, ambitious women of all backgrounds."
But it is clear we have failed to honor this commitment.
Her IMF position aside, Madame Lagarde's accomplishments extend from the first female chairman of the international law firm, Baker & McKenzie to the first female finance minister of a G8 nation. This year she was deemed one of the world's most powerful women by Forbes Magazine. In other words, exactly the type of woman leader we can learn from.
In the effort to stand firm against the IMF, 485 Smith students, faculty and members of the Northampton community have effectively censored the voice of a brilliant, strong female leader within the walls of our university. We have lost the opportunity for nuanced discourse on the complexities and weaknesses of IMF foreign policies, and ultimately, challenged Smith's core values of free thought and diversity of opinion.
With at least four Smith alumnae working at the IMF, one might ask why Smith protestors haven't chosen to direct their activism towards engaging alumnae in constructive discussion, instead of using the graduation ceremony as platform to display their broader disillusionment with the IMF.
Smith's administration must urge students to remain open-minded, to adhere to our core values and listen (even in a commencement address) to leaders who represent standards that run contrary to our own. Only then, with informed dialogue, can we effectively change the powerful institutions so many blindly fight today.