Who's afraid of Christine Lagarde?

IMF head Christine Lagarde, former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, religious activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali — all smart, conservative women being 'disinvited,' shouted off university podiums. What gives in America's halls of learning?

The new U.S. college fad of 'disinviting' the commencement speaker

Moi? An icon of global patriarchal oppression? International Monetary Fund head Christine Lagarde, shown here waiting for a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel last week. (Associated Press)

If I were to imagine an icon of global patriarchal oppression, I suppose I might pick one of America's male Republican "family values" crusaders, or one of Iran's clerics, or one of the Pentagon generals who don't want civilian courts to try soldiers for rape, or one of those Wall Street uber-fratboys with their mega-million bonuses, suspenders and smirking disregard for regulation. 

I can think of all sorts of candidates. But one person who doesn't pop to mind is Christine Lagarde.

The first female director of the International Monetary Fund is a fiscal conservative of intimidating intellect, so impossibly self-possessed that, here in Washington, where your television image matters more than just about anything, she leaves her hair grey.

In her previous life as France's first female finance minister, she steered her country through the financial meltdown in 2008, and may yet become that country's first female president.

Still, according to a petition organized by students and faculty at the elite Smith College for women in Massachusetts, Lagarde was a deeply offensive choice for commencement speaker this month.

Signatories declared that her "work directly contributes to … the strengthening of imperialist and patriarchal systems that oppress and abuse women worldwide."

The indignant progressive

Now, the role of the IMF is well worth debating. Often, its conditions for rescuing bungled economies involve imposition of austerity so severe it actually makes life worse for the citizenry. Greece is a perfect example.

Lagarde is certainly willing to debate that issue. (Although, having questioned her about it myself, I'd advise a lot of reading beforehand).

But the students and faculty at Smith apparently aren't interested in debate. They already know all the answers, and they seem to feel they have nothing to learn from the likes of Christine Lagarde.

They wanted nothing less than to force her off the podium.

So, one of the world's most powerful women politely withdrew, allowing the private women's college to remain uncontaminated by her presence. And her knowledge.

Such a victory for higher learning. There is perhaps no creature more self-righteously censorious than an indignant progressive at a North American university.

At least someone still wants her. Former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice delivered a speech on civil rights progress at the University of Minnesota in April. And Texas Tech said that she can speak at its commencement ceremonies any time. (Associated Press)

In fact, all over the U.S. this spring, that left-wing intolerance is burning fiercely.

At Rutgers University in New Jersey, students and professors determined to silence Condoleezza Rice got their wish this month when the former secretary of state withdrew from delivering the commencement speech there.

Rice, a trailblazer and highly accomplished academic, was deemed offensive because of her involvement in George W. Bush's militarism.

Again, a worthwhile subject to debate, or to protest. But that's not what the impromptu purity committee at Rutgers wanted. They didn't want Rice speaking at all.

Plus, of course, Rice is a Republican. Hillary Clinton voted for Bush's Iraq war, but I'll bet the Rutgers crowd would somehow have forgiven that.

At Brandeis University, just outside of Boston, last month, officials buckled under student pressure and reversed their decision to award an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali-born writer and activist whose harsh criticisms of Islam have endeared her to conservatives.

You'd think Ali has earned the right to criticize the religion into which she was born: she was genitally mutilated at the age of five, and fled an arranged marriage.

But the Brandeis petitioners, people whom, one suspects, would be only too happy to welcome a high-profile critic of Christian evangelicals, regard her as a promoter of hatred who should be shunned, not debated.

At Haverford College in Pennsylvania, another student-faculty petition objected to a commencement speech by Robert Birgeneau, the Canadian physicist (and former president of the University of Toronto).

Birgeneau was chancellor of UC Berkeley in 2011 when campus police became nasty with Occupy movement protesters. He later apologized for what happened.

To be fair, the Haverford petitioners weren't absolutely unyielding in their opposition to Birgeneau, who's been a champion of gay rights.

They offered to withdraw their protest if he agreed to several acts of public self-mortification, including explicit apologies going much further than his earlier one, a pledge of reparations to the Occupy protesters, an admission of being "instrumental" in the way police behaved toward them, and a detailed explanation, in an open letter to the students of Haverford, of what he has learned from the event and why he is repenting.

Birgeneau demurred, and withdrew. The speaker who replaced him, former Princeton president William Bowen, used the commencement address to reveal his own patriarchal oppressiveness.

He bluntly confronted what he called the arrogant and immature behaviour of Birgeneau's detractors.

"In my view, they should have encouraged him to come and engage in a genuine discussion, not to come, tail between his legs, to respond to an indictment that a self-chosen jury had reached without hearing counterarguments."

There were, apparently, a good number of grownups in the audience. They responded with a standing ovation.

Herd of independent thinkers

I won't go into the everyday rant here about how universities are supposed to be marketplaces of ideas, and that their obligation is to expose students to a range of views.

Suffice it to say they don't, generally.

From speech codes to rigid academic orthodoxy to plain old groupthink, these herds of independent thinkers, to use speech advocate Nat Hentoff's brilliant term, are more often opponents of true academic freedom.

Former Smith president Ruth Simmons stepped in at the last minute to give the commencement address this week after a campus protest dissuaded the original invitee, IMF head Christine Lagarde, to take a pass. (Associated Press)

But back for a moment to Lagarde.

After she withdrew, the Smith commencement speech was delivered by Dr. Ruth Simmons, the renowned former president of Smith and of Brown University, and the first African-American woman to head an Ivy League institution.

Simmons, who grew up in the Jim Crow South, almost certainly holds views that are a good deal less conservative than Lagarde's, and she found favour where the IMF leader didn't.

In their relief at not being exposed to the patriarchy-embracing Lagarde, the petition-signers at Smith even managed to ignore the fact that, while at Brown, Simmons earned hundreds of thousands of dollars a year on the side serving on the board of Goldman Sachs.

In fact, she was on the select committee at the giant bank that helped decide how big the mega-bonuses would be for the boys in suspenders.

How wonderfully progressive of the Smith-ites to overlook all that.

About the Author

Neil Macdonald

Opinion Columnist

Neil Macdonald is an opinion columnist for CBC News, based in Ottawa. Prior to that he was the CBC's Washington correspondent for 12 years, and before that he spent five years reporting from the Middle East. He also had a previous career in newspapers, and speaks English and French fluently, and some Arabic.


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