It was announced last week that I.M.F. Chief Christine Lagarde had withdrawn from giving the Commencement speech at Smith College, a few days after former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice backed out from giving the Commencement speech at Rutgers University. Some Rutgers students had protested the invitation extended to Rice because they view her as a war criminal due to her role in the Iraq war, while the I.M.F. has come under heat for its loan practices toward developing economies. Commentators have generally expressed various degrees of dismay at this outcome, and I strongly believe that both Condoleezza Rice and Christine Lagarde would have had valuable insights to share with their respective audiences of graduates, but what has surprised me the most in the news coverage is how little attention has been given to the fact that these two accomplished women apparently chose to cave in to pressure, whether from the students or from administrators who didn't want to officially rescind the invitation.
I don't understand why they couldn't handle the heat - especially Lagarde, who is currently holding an important post where she has to make tough decisions. I could imagine Rice deciding that she's done with public service and doesn't have to put up with people protesting her invitation, but from Lagarde it just comes across as weak. So students would have protested at Commencement - what is the big deal? (Unless they were worried for their safety, which would obviously be a very big deal, but which I haven't seen anyone suggest so far.) Both Rice and Lagarde could still have read their remarks, and they could - and probably should - have donated the speaking fee to a non-controversial cause such as the Special Olympics, and perhaps they could also have met the student protesters outside Commencement to discuss their and the students' views. I don't agree with the minority who protested, but it seems to me that they had the right to do so. The Commencement speakers chose to back down, or agreed to give the appearance of backing down. I hope that at the very least, they will publish the speeches they would have given, whether controversial or not, although it is hard to believe that they would have used college graduation exercises to stir up controversy. Having one's voice silenced is never a good outcome.