Perhaps the most nerve-racking duty of a senior class president at Scripps College in Claremont is securing a speaker for commencement. And Jennie Xu thought she had nailed it by booking Madeleine Albright, the first woman to serve as U.S. secretary of State.
Here was a pioneering woman who fled political persecution as a child and became U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and America’s chief diplomat. Like Xu and her classmates, Albright also attended an all-women college.
“She was our top choice,” Xu said. “I was really, really ecstatic.”
But that feeling has been far from universal. Some of Xu’s classmates denounced Albright as a “war criminal.” Others said they were outraged by Albright’s insinuation that they could wind up in “a special place in hell” if they didn’t support Hillary Clinton’s historic run for the White House. And 28 professors vowed not to share the stage with Albright when seniors don their sage green caps and gowns May 14.
“I’m deeply disgusted that on the happiest day of my life (up to this point) I have to sit quietly and smile at the cameras of my parents and grandparents while this woman tells me to go out into the world and be amazing, even though according to her, I’m going to hell,” senior Kinzie Mabon wrote in a campus newspaper.
Protesting commencement speakers has become an annual tradition at college campuses these days. But for the 960 undergraduates at Scripps, the prestigious all-women member of the Claremont Colleges, the debate over Albright’s invitation this year has gone to the heart of the institution, centering on what constitutes a modern female role model.
“People have a right to state their views,” she said. “I also think they have a duty to listen to people that they might disagree with.”
The search for commencement speakers who will entertain and inspire without offending students’ notions of political correctness has become increasingly fraught on campuses.
“It’s a lose-lose for colleges,” said attorney Ari Cohn of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, who tracks the disinvitation of commencement speakers. “Select somebody who’s interesting, and somebody’s going to oppose it. Or select somebody who’s boring, and everyone’s going to oppose it.”
UCLA learned that lesson in 2009, when Golden Globe-winning actor James Franco was asked to deliver a commencement address. An editorial in the Daily Bruin dismissed Franco as not “as esteemed as a commencement speaker of UCLA’s caliber should be.” Franco backed out, citing a scheduling conflict.
And the same speaker could be celebrated by one university but condemned by another. Albright is also headlining graduations this year at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and the University of Denver, where her selection was welcomed without controversy.
Among those joining the discussion on the Scripps campus is Nicole Zwiener, a senior majoring in media studies who said she had hoped to hear from someone like Rupi Kaur, a feminist writer and photographer, or Emily Schuman, a Scripps alumna who launched the popular lifestyle blog Cupcakes and Cashmere.
“Those are just two women that I look up to,” Zwiener said.
Others lamented that the choice of Albright was a missed opportunity to advance the conversation about diversity.
“Race issues are super important,” said Grace Poole, a senior majoring in art. “Having a woman of color, giving them that access to speak, is very important.”
Denise Nelson Nash, the college president’s chief of staff, said the process was meant to be an empowering opportunity for students. “They’re the ones looking for someone who is going to inspire them,” she said.
Xu had seen the senior classes before her scramble to find their speakers in time. So she began canvassing her classmates when she was still a sophomore, sending out email surveys and hosting “office hours” at the popular Motley Coffeehouse.
Celebrities were in demand, but student leaders had to be realistic.
“There was a lot of support for Ellen [DeGeneres], for example, but we didn’t have the connections,” said Grace Dahlstrom, who serves as class co-president with Xu.
So when a student said her family had an in with Albright, Dahlstrom and Xu jumped at the opportunity. Albright was locked in by March of their junior year — before the class ahead of them had found its speaker.
Dahlstrom was thrilled and said she felt a special kinship with the former secretary because she had gone to Wellesley College.
“We all share a connection of being proud of, and being excited about, attending a college of driven young women,” she said.
In her campus op-ed, Mabon acknowledged the work it took to secure Albright and gave her credit for breaking barriers. “But being the first woman to do something impressive does not give you a free pass on human rights,” she wrote. “If my time at Scripps taught me anything, it has certainly taught me that.”
Human rights were also the sticking point for the 28 professors who pledged not to participate in the official commencement procession. They cited Albright’s foreign policy role during the Clinton administration — a time when U.S.-led sanctions were blamed for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children and the United Nations declined to intervene in the Rwandan genocide.
Kimberly Drake, who teaches courses on protest writing and literature, said a commencement speech was different from other kinds of guest lectures, which include Q&As and give the audience a chance to engage with the speaker.
“Such events deliberately call for the expression of different or opposing views,” said Drake, who helped draft the letter. But standing on stage at graduation could “be perceived as tacit support for the values represented by Madeleine Albright.”
Nancy Neiman Auerbach, a professor of international political economy, added that the protest offers a parting lesson for seniors. “In my view, we are modeling for our students who are graduating a lifetime of political engagement,” she said.
A similar backlash unfolded at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., when International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde was selected as commencement speaker in 2014.
Although Lagarde was ranked the fifth most powerful woman in the world that year by Forbes magazine, more than 500 faculty members and students at the all-women college signed an online petition criticizing the IMF’s role in “the strengthening of imperialist and patriarchal systems that oppress and abuse women worldwide.”
The protests prompted Lagarde to withdraw one week before graduation.
Albright said she was committed to speaking at Scripps. Encouraging young women to work hard, open their minds and pursue challenging careers never gets old, especially when there are still so many barriers for them to break, she said.
“There’s plenty of room in the world for mediocre men,” she said. “There’s none for mediocre women.”