HAVERFORD, Pa., May 14 (UPI) -- In the United States, protesting the choice of commencement speaker -- followed by a cancellation -- has become a rite of spring on many campuses.
Smith and Haverford joined the 2014 list this week. Robert J. Birgeneau, former chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, announced he would not speak at Haverford, while International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde decided against appearing at Smith.
At Haverford, a well-regarded liberal arts college on Philadelphia's Main Line founded by Quakers, the problem was university police action at Berkeley against the Occupy movement. A group of Haverford students and faculty, all of them Berkeley alumni, demanded that Birgenau meet a series of demands, including explaining the police action and supporting reparations for those affected by it.
Birgenau declined. The college said that three other speakers are on the program, so he will not be replaced.
Lagarde, one of the world's most powerful women, would seem to have been a good fit for Smith in Northampton, Mass. -- one of the few leading women's colleges that has resisted becoming co-educational. But almost 500 people signed an online petition against the choice.
"Although we do not wish to disregard all of Ms. Lagarde's accomplishments as a strong female leader in the world, we also do not want to be represented by someone whose work directly contributes to many of the systems that we are taught to fight against," the petition said. "By having her speak at our commencement, we would be publicly supporting and acknowledging her, and thus the IMF."
Smith announced Lagarde's withdrawal. In a statement, Lagarde said that the controversy would undercut the "celebratory" spirit of commencement.
Former Smith President Ruth Simmons will speak instead. Simmons, who headed the college from 1995 to 2000, was the first black woman president of a major college or university and went on to become the first black president in the Ivy League at Brown University. In April, Brandeis University canceled plans to award an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a fellow of the American Enterprise Institute. Critics said that Hirsi Ali, a Muslim turned atheist known for her opposition to Islamist extremists, has made Islamophobic statements.
Earlier this month, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice backed away from an invitation to speak at Rutgers University in New Jersey because of criticism of her role in the Iraq War.