The head of the International Monetary Fund on Monday joined an elite group—those whose plans to give commencement addresses this graduation season were derailed by student or faculty protests.
Christine Lagarde, managing director of the IMF, was scheduled to speak this coming Sunday at Smith College, but she withdrew her name after nearly 500 people signed a petition objecting to the policies of the IMF. Similar outcries foiled speaking engagements by former National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice at Rutgers University and human-rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali at Brandeis University, among several others.
“I call it disinvitation season,” said Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a free-speech advocacy group. “Not everyone gets disinvited, but there is such consistent effort to get rid of people.”
Mr. Lukianoff said the trend is clearly growing. According to a tally by his group, between 1987 and 2008, there were 48 protests of planned speeches, not all for graduations, that led to 21 incidents of an invited guest not speaking. Since 2009 there have been 95 protests, resulting in 39 cancellations, according to Mr. Lukianoff’s group.
Earlier this month at Rutgers, students and faculty protested Ms. Rice’s involvement in the Iraq war, prompting her to pull out of her scheduled address at the New Jersey school. In April, Brandeis withdrew an honorary degree for Ms. Hirsi Ali, a former Dutch lawmaker who has spoken out forcefully against Islam. At Haverford College, the commencement selection of Robert J. Birgeneau, a former university administrator at Berkeley, also has drawn fire.
“There are serious implications for what is going on here; universities are becoming havens of the closed minded,” said Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, which says it promotes academic standards and accountability. “What we are beginning to see is a heckler’s veto.”
Rudy Fichtenbaum, president of the American Association of University Professors, defended the rights of students and faculty to protest, petition and otherwise make their voices heard.
“There’s a long history of protests in the United States; that’s what we were founded on, and I think student protests are partially an introduction to democracy,” Mr. Fichtenbaum said.
The disputes can put schools in a difficult spot. At Brandeis, officials found much to laud in Ms. Hirsi Ali before withdrawing her honorary degree, citing “certain of her past statements that are inconsistent” with the school’s values.
The controversies haven’t been limited to colleges. Last month, the White House said Michelle Obama would deliver the commencement address to graduating seniors in the Topeka, Kan., school district. But after parents complained about limited seating for family and friends and about the first lady’s distracting from the celebration of seniors, the plan was retooled. Mrs. Obama now is scheduled to speak a day earlier—this coming Friday—at a “senior recognition day” in Topeka.
Protesting commencement speakers isn’t entirely new. In 1987, Jeane Kirkpatrick, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, withdrew from delivering the commencement address at Lafayette College, where she also was to get an honorary degree. In 1993, then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell weathered activists’ ire and delivered Harvard University’s graduation speech.
More recently, protests have greeted luminaries on the left, like playwright Tony Kushner, who faced protests at Brandeis in 2006 over his critical views of Israel, and 1960s activist Bill Ayers, who was disinvited from the University of Nebraska in 2008, according to the FIRE tally.
At Smith, a women’s liberal-arts college in Northampton, Mass., past speakers have included Rachel Maddow, Gloria Steinem, and, last year, Arianna Huffington. This year, the protesters said in their petition that by selecting Ms. Lagarde as commencement speaker, “we are supporting the International Monetary Fund and thus going directly against Smith’s values to stand in unity with equality for all women, regardless of race, ethnicity or class.”
The IMF, which essentially acts as emergency lender to countries in need, often requires governments to tighten their belts by reining in state spending, including on public workers and social security. The group has said it engages only with member countries that request its assistance and that bailout programs are developed with the requesting governments.
Smith President Kathleen McCartney wrote that Ms. Lagarde contacted her over the weekend to withdraw. An IMF spokeswoman said Ms. Lagarde “did not want the IMF participation to divert attention from the remarkable achievements of the graduating students.”
“The issue isn’t that we’re against debate but that we’re only hearing one side of the debate continuously,” said Nandi Marumo, a 22-year-old junior at Smith, who signed the petition against Ms. Lagarde. “We hear the same narrative from every person, from the media, from everything.”
At Smith, meanwhile, Sunday’s commencement will instead be delivered by Ruth Simmons, a former school president.