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A petition demanding that the invitation to Lagarde be rescinded called the IMF the “primary culprit” of developmental policies that have “led directly to the strengthening of imperialist and patriarchal systems that oppress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.”
“I don’t think the students did anything wrong,” McCartney told me. “You can protest. I worry about the narrowing of voices that are deemed acceptable.”
So McCartney asked Simmons to pinch-hit in Northampton last Sunday, and the pinch-
hitter hit a home run. Simmons told graduates that as a black woman who grew up in the segregated South, she had a view that was peculiar to her time and place, a place that was once the back of the bus.
“My coming of age was marred by the wide acceptance of the violent suppression of speech. Any criticism or complaint that was deemed unsuitable could result in summary violence against one’s family and against one’s person. No forums of open expression existed for me or mine in the Jim Crow South of my early youth. Once you have tasted the bitterness and brutality of being silenced in this way, it is easy to recognize the danger of undermining free speech.
“Our founders began with a lofty ideal, holding certain truths to be self-evident. Little is self-evident in the public space today. Disagreement abounds on every slight and significant matter. Protecting free speech brilliantly insulates us from being silenced for our unpopular views.
“I hope your voices are strong and resonant. I hope that Smith has given you, as it gave me, a platform to sharpen your ability to confront the injustices that you see, far and near. I hope your voices will become even stronger in the years ahead, as we continue to fight human trafficking; social, economic and health disparities; unjust incarceration; acts of human genocide and exploitation; and still massive civil rights violations.”
But, Simmons added, “Universities have a special obligation to protect free speech, open discourse, and the value of protest. The collision of views and ideologies is in the DNA of the academic enterprise.”
Simmons encouraged Smith to invite Lagarde again, insisting that one’s principles are strengthened, not compromised, by listening to opposing views. “Be open-minded,” she said, “fight for those who haven’t the means to protect themselves, work to preserve the spirit of this college as a place for the free exchange of ideas, however much those ideas elicit discomfort, challenge, and debate.”
When Ruth Simmons finished, the Smithies stood and roared, as her wisdom echoed around the Pioneer Valley and beyond.Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com.