Smith Students Stand Up, Lagarde Backs Down
By Alyssa Flores and Kimberly Garcia
In February, President Kathleen McCartney announced that the Smith College commencement speaker would be Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund. Inviting Lagarde undermined Smith’s claim of building a more diverse community to empower marginalized voices—specifically, voices of women of color — as the IMF’s practices directly harm women around the world, including members of the Smith community. Inviting Lagarde made it clear that Smith is embracing the empowerment of women whose success is founded on power, often gained by abusing marginalized groups.
Indeed, institutions like Smith are founded on structures of inequality. In 1875, originally attended by 14 (white) women, Smith upheld systems of inequality with its focus on empowering the voices of women of privilege. By organizing, however, students throughout Smith’s history have changed the dynamics of the university to create space for otherwise marginalized voices. For example, in 1983, students rallied to protest the invitation of Jeane Kirkpatrick, Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy advisor, to speak at commencement, whose invitation was eventually rescinded. We hope to follow in this tradition.
Initially, we began organizing by way of a petition to uninvite Lagarde, which garnered 500 signatures but failed to receive appropriate acknowledgment from the administration. The administration ignored complaints and when faced with demands to remove Lagarde as the commencement speaker, and claimed it was too late to un-invite her and we should become involved in the search for next year’s speaker. The request to sit back and maybe do something next year was a request to keep quiet and we were not going to keep quiet. So, we turned to protest.
On May 2, we marched through campus to President McCartney’s house during a trustee dinner. We used our voices to make as much noise as possible, chanting, “No IMF,” “God-goddamnit, capitalism is killing the planet,” ““Whose school? Our school!” and, “The Smithies united, will never be defeated!” We wanted to make it clear that we would not be silent about Lagarde’s invitation. President McCartney, the President of the Board of Trustees, and several other Trustees emerged from the President’s house to “hear” our concerns. They said very little to us, making generic statements about what we could do next year. When we expressed why Lagarde’s invitation was a problem now—and how we felt we weren’t being heard—they shook their heads in disapproval and told us it was too late to un-invite her.
After our initial protest, we conducted three sit-ins. In one action, we posted sticky notes on the front door and garage door of President McCartney’s house. Our notes included, “Smith inviting Christine Lagarde to be a role model at commencement says that we think heading the IMF, a dangerous, imperialistic institution, is a laudable form of success,” “engage with us in discussion,” and “just because she’s a woman doesn’t make her a feminist.”
Additionally, we organized an email and phone blast, with emails sent to Lagarde, President McCartney, and other administrators, and calls made to the IMF office in Washington, D.C. Though we did not receive any direct response from anyone, on May 12, Lagarde withdrew and President McCartney sent an email explaining the withdrawal and commenting on the protests. The email suggested protesters would be “satisfied that their activism has had a desired effect. But at what cost to Smith College?” However, at what cost was the initial invitation to Lagarde to Smith students? At what cost to Smith’s reputation as a women’s college dedicated to empowering all women?
McCartney also wrote, “I remain committed to leading a college where differing views can be heard and debated with respect.” Whose voices and differing views are being heard and debated with respect? Insofar as commencement has no room for dialogue or critical discourse, how could it be a place to engage in this dialogue?
The withdrawal of Lagarde has sparked major backlash. Students, administration, and faculty with opposing views expressed their shame and disappointment in protesters. Commentators have called those of us involved in the protests “a bunch of self-righteous millennials,” argued our protests “reveal less about the speakers than the students' own entitlement,” and even claimed that the protestors are “too young to have seen the need to put away their childish things” — that is, our activism and our desire to stand up against what we see as unjust systems. Former President of Tufts, Lawrence Bacow, said that “students expect just to be entertained. They judge the quality of their commencement by the celebrity of their speaker.”Of course, it wasn’t Lagarde’s fame that led us to protest, but the model of success that would be set forth in having her honored at commencement.
In response to McCartney’s email, Smith students wrote an open letter that was distributed across campus and signed by 248 students, as of May 26. The document, though unchanging in content, is being continuously updated to include the signatures of students who endorse the message but could not sign it prior to it being sent out. While Lagarde had already withdrawn, it is important that this movement continue to be discussed, thus, we have been working to continue this conversation throughout the summer and into the upcoming academic year.
Emailing and calling the administration and invited speakers directly to express disappointment or unhappiness is a respectful, direct, and clear form of resistance. These forums allow us to collaborate on a collective and strong front, while making our message articulate and clear. Protesting can be a productive, loud, and powerful form of resistance as well; in taking up space, we are demanding the attention of the administration. Demonstrations such as our silent sit-ins and sticky notes, are also powerful forms of resistance, allowing us to be articulate and concise while showing our commitment to this movement. These methods forced the administration to notice that we were unhappy, and we were successful in making our voices loud. While we may not have been heard on all fronts, no one can say we did not fight for what we believed in. In addition to these active forms of resistance, our campaign also made an extraordinary effort to record our histories. By taking pictures, writing and publishing pieces, and being transparent in our efforts, we are able to preserve what we’ve done. Sending all of our materials to the college archives makes it harder to erase our struggles and our voices.
By inviting commencement speakers deemed successful and powerful, an institution is making clear what they value and what model of success they want to perpetuate. The act of honoring the already powerful, especially those who have become powerful by abusing marginalized groups, will likely be an issue that continues in the future. It is important that students, regardless of how unpopular the opinion, stand up for what they believe is right.
Originally from El Paso, Texas, Alyssa has been an activist from a very young age. Passionate about evoking change, she began attending protests and demonstrations while living in San Diego with her mother at the age of 7. She continues to do so as she enters her third year at Smith College, where she is majoring in the Study of Women and Gender.
Coming from Carmel, New York, Kym knew at a young age that the conservative nature of their small town was not for them when feminist rants on the playground were not appreciated by students or teachers. Though politically engaged, Kym had little outlet outside of the internet for their activism until starting school at Smith College in 2012. Kym is now majoring in the Study of Women and Gender as well as studying Government and Archives.