Student Protests Driving Away Commencement Speakers

In the past 2 weeks, protests by students and faculty forced three prominent public figures to pass on their roles as commencement speakers.

Former University of California at Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau has withdrawn from giving the May 18th commencement speech at Haverford College, says Susan Snyder for The Inquirer.

At Haverford, a group of students and faculty wrote Birgeneau a statement showing concern about the role he played during a Berkeley campus police use of force in the middle of a November 2011 protes. Birgeneau backed out of the commencement role.

Haverford students and faculty requested Birgeneau to agree to nine demands. Some of these included assisting in the retrieval of compensation for the victims of the November 2011 protest at Berkeley, admitting that he played a pivotal part in that particular situation and drafting an open statement to Haverford students about what he learned from the disastrous protest situation. Lisa Wilson of the Bloomberg Businessweek quotes him as saying:

“I have never and will never respond to lists of demands,” Birgeneau said in a letter in response that was posted on the Haverford student newspaper website. “Second, as a long time civil rights activist and firm supporter of non-violence, I do not respond to untruthful, violent verbal attacks.”

International Monetary Fund (IMF) Managing Director Christine Lagarde has backed out as the speaker for the commencement of Smith College after the outcry of student and faculty protests over IMF policies.

Hundreds of students and faculty signed an online petition that stated that Lagarde represents a terribly corrupt system that fuels the oppression and abuse of women worldwide, writes Paige Sutherland for

She claimed it was very clear that many students and faculty did not want her at their commencement and that she also did not want to take away from a such a happy moment in their lives.

Former Smith and Brown University President Ruth Simmons is stepping into Lagarde’s shoes as the May 18th commencement speaker, says Sutherland. Simmons was voted into office as president at Brown University in 2000, but resigned in 2012. She is the first woman and African American president of an Ivy League school.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also withdrew from Rutgers University’s May 18 commencement ceremony after a group of students and faculty protested about her position on the Gulf War, reports Wilson.

At the time, she was serving under President George W. Bush and the group of protesters claimed that Rutgers inviting of her was “autocratic and secret.” According to a Rutgers statement, the recommendations for speakers are decided by a Board of Governors committee that includes governors, trustees and other prominent members of the Rutgers community. Wilson writes:

“Dr. Rice’s name was selected through this process and unanimously approved by the Rutgers Board of Governors on Feb. 4,” the university said.

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