Pomp and Divorce

Joshua Bridges

It’s speaker disinvitation season.

In April, renowned surgeon and outspoken conservative Ben Carson withdrew as the commencement speaker for John Hopkins University after students upset with comments he made about homosexuality in an interview started a petition to remove him. Not wanting to be a distraction, Carson voluntarily withdrew.

Similarly, in May, prominent Republican and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice voluntarily withdrew as Rutgers University’s commencement speaker after opposition arose from some highly vocal faculty members and students.

This year, however, conservatives like Carson and Rice are not the only victims of the radical left. In February, the campus militants set their sights on an erstwhile ally: Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). On May 12, after heavy opposition, Lagarde withdrew as the commencement speaker for Smith College, a highly-regarded private women’s college in Northampton, Massachusetts.

Apparently, association with the IMF is a new cardinal sin on college campuses. As of May 15, an online petition calling for Lagarde’s removal garnered 493 signatures.

After learning of the controversy, LaGarde informed Smith College president Kathleen McCartney that, not wanting to distract from the “celebratory spirit of commencement day,” she thought it best to withdraw.

Now here’s the twist: Lagarde is not only a mainstream liberal, but also a feminist.

She has publically expressed her desire to make income inequality a major policy concern for the IMF. She has also called for governments to adopt economic policies geared toward “leveling the playing field for women,” saying that “government tax and spending policies as well as labor market regulation can be reformed to help boost female employment.” One would think that such an accomplished woman with such obvious ideological credentials would at least be given a pass, if not lionized by the notoriously feminist students of Smith College. And that’s exactly what the administration sought to do. But they are apparently out of step with the radical wing of the campus, which is always the agenda-setting wing in these matters.

To the far left feminists at Smith College, however, it didn’t matter that Lagarde has been an outspoken feminist. Nor did it matter that Lagarde was the first female chairman of international law firm Baker & McKenzie, the first female IMF head, and, as France’s Minister of Economic Affairs, Finance, and Employment prior to joining the IMF, the first female finance minister of a G8 economy. All that mattered was that she was part of what they see as the corrupt global capitalist economic order. Indeed, the online petition calling for her removal says the following:

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 . . . 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 rejection of one of the most powerful women in the world, a liberal feminist who “broke barriers” at every turn, is indicative of a larger trend—an ongoing schism between the mainstream left and the militant far left.

Consider recent events at Haverford College in Pennsylvania. After the school invited former University of California at Berkeley chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau to be its commencement speaker, some students and faculty members sent Birgeneau a letter saying that they were “deeply disturbed” by his handling of Occupy Wall Street-affiliated protests on the Berkeley campus in 2011, when police enforcing the school’s no encampment policy used batons to disperse nonviolent protesters. Despite initially supporting the police, Birgeneau later recanted and ordered an investigation of the incident.

In their letter to Birgeneau, they made nine demands, including that Birgeneau apologize, write an open letter to the Haverford community, and spearhead an initiative to train campus security forces to handle protests better. Birgeneau refused.

On May 13, Haverford president Daniel Weiss announced that Birgeneau had withdrawn as commencement speaker.

Birgeneau is not the Machiavellian conservative that his detractors at Haverford seem to think he is. By all accounts, he is one of the most progressive administrators in academe.

In 2011, by Birgenau’s leading, Berkeley unveiled the Berkeley Middle Class Access Plan, which guarantees financial aid to all middle-income students by capping parent contribution toward undergraduate student education at 15 percent of family income. It made Berkeley the first public university in the country to offer comprehensive aid to families with an annual income between $80,000 and $140,000.

He is also an avid supporter of the gay rights movement. In October 2008, as the Berkeley chancellor, he condemned Proposition 8, the California ballot proposition banning same-sex marriages, as “in conflict with the principles of equity and inclusion to which our campus is committed.”

Furthermore, according to President Weiss, Birgeneau had planned to use his commencement address to “increase awareness of what he believes to be the defining social justice issues of this generation of gradates: the plight of 11 million undocumented American immigrants.”

Just like at Smith College, none of this mattered to Haverford’s militant left. All that mattered was Birgeneau’s role in the forced removal of Occupy protesters.

The rejection of progressives like Lagarde and Birgeneau by the students at Smith and Haverford reveals an ideological tribalism which foments on many college campuses today. A once-uneasy alliance between campus liberals and radicals is crumbling because true believers are demanding more and more genuflection. 

Undoubtedly many of Lagarde’s detractors at Smith shared her belief in female empowerment, as their petition, which describes her as a “good person working in a corrupt system,” attests. But they couldn’t get past the fact that she was a capitalist.

Similarly, in their letter to Birgeneau, the Haverford protesters state that despite their admiration for his work on “LGBT rights, affordable education, and the plight of undocumented students, they could not support the school’s invitation to him unless he meets their accompanying demands.

The message is clear: if you don’t abide by every jot or tittle of the new law, you’re not worth listening to.

This is a dangerous attitude with implications stretching far beyond the college campus. Society is full of vastly different people with different worldviews, and it is necessary to have healthy dialogue between different groups.

Colleges are supposed to enable such dialogue by producing principled yet reasonable individuals, men and women who are steadfast in their convictions, but also willing to consider other points of view.

In announcing Lagarde’s withdrawal, Smith president Kathleen McCartney remarked:

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.

McCartney’s reflectiveness is welcome.  But in order to ensure that what happened at John Hopkins, Rutgers, Smith and Haverford doesn’t become a regular occurrence, reflection must turn into action. The intolerance and ideological rigidity displayed by these students and faculty members is not anomalous. They are fruits of systemic problems, the roots of which go far too deep for any quick fix. And yet, McCartney’s serious soul-searching is a good place to start.

Back in February, when Smith announced the selection of Lagarde as commencement speaker on its official Facebook page, a Smith student commented, “It’s interesting that in my Smith College Study of Women and Gender classes our professors discuss at length how basically evil the IMF is (and this is regarded as a no brainer) and then she’s our commencement speaker.”

Another said,

IMF is ruining our planet. We’re taught in classrooms all the terrible things that IMF is responsible for, and then we’re supposed to applaud their Managing Director at commencement? Hypocrisy everywhere. Not a proud moment for Smith College.

If McCartney wants to know where her students’ intolerance and sense of ideological radicalism comes from, she need look no further.

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