The IMF is one of the world’s most important international agencies, and Lagarde is the first woman to lead it. But achievement is not enough for Smith students, who demand intellectual conformity as well: a petition asking Smith president Kathleen McCartney to “reconsider” her invitation attracted 478 signatures, and students and faculty protested and wrote to Lagarde to express their objection. Wanting to “preserve the celebratory spirit of commencement day,” Lagarde withdrew.
The petition shows how poor an education some Smith students have received. Petitioners claimed that, “At Smith College…we are taught to speak up when something is unjust[.]” But apparently they were not taught that justice includes fairness towards differing viewpoints and respect for those who hold them. They were not taught that they can better fight “inequality and corruption” if they are familiar with differing explanations for them.
The petitioners claim that inviting Lagarde implies that she “represents” the school, but that is false. President McCartney rightly said, “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.”
There’s the rub. A person of accomplishment will almost invariably offend someone, so either a university must rule out all public figures or it must favor the feelings of some groups over others. Most universities have chosen the latter path, and they often use political criteria to determine which groups to favor. That is why, for example, Brandeis University stood behind Tony Kushner despite protests, but did not stand behind Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
Freedom to hear is an important part of academic freedom. And academic freedom trumps the fantasy of freedom from being offended. The late C. Vann Woodward wrote, “Free speech is a barrier to the tyranny of authoritarian or even majority opinion as to the rightness or wrongness of particular doctrines or thoughts.”
Smith’s board of trustees, and governing boards at other institutions that have shamed themselves during “disinvitation season,” would do well to rethink the fundamentals of a free society and the role their university plays in preparing graduates for informed participation in the life of our nation.