After Kathy McCartney became president of Smith College last year, her very first act as leader of one of the great universities for women was to write a letter to one of her predecessors, Ruth Simmons, offering her an honorary degree.
It was a presidentially prescient gesture, because what could have made a debacle the defining moment of McCartney’s first year of leadership, instead became a great teaching moment.
Smith thought it had scored a coup when Christine Lagarde, the first woman to head the International Monetary Fund, agreed to be the 2014 commencement speaker. But some Smith students and faculty were fervently opposed.
A petition demanding that the invitation to Lagarde be rescinded called the IMF the “primary culprit” of developmental policies that have “led directly to the strengthening of imperialist and patriarchal systems that oppress and abuse women worldwide.” Some students wrote to Lagarde, asking her not to come.
Lagarde withdrew, and McCartney worried that Smith would now be identified with a disturbing trend in which “subsets of students and faculty, typically on the political left, [object] to commencement speakers whose words, views, actions or organizations they opposed.”
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