Leftist students at Swarthmore College, dissatisfied with their commencement speaker’s connection to the Bush administration, persuaded him to withdraw as speaker.
Robert Zoellick served as deputy secretary of state under President Bush in 2005, and is known for strongly backing the Iraq War. These views put him at odds with Swarthmore’s Quaker roots, said some students.
At a meeting last week, one student called Zoellick a “war criminal” who did not share “Swarthmore values.”
The student, identified as “Will L.” in a comment on an online article about the controversy, drew attention to the fact that Zoellick would be receiving an honorary degree: “I, and many others, are opposed to Zoellick’s honorary degree for a number of reasons. His tenure at the World Bank and as U.S. Trade Representative are among them. So is his time in the private sector, when he worked at Goldman Sachs and Fannie Mae — two institutions that would later become infamous for their role in the 2008 financial collapse. So is his role in helping build an ideological foundation for the Iraq War. His whole career has been built on one morally dubious enterprise after another.”
In response, Zoellick decided not speak at commencement, and said that he would refuse the honorary degree.
“He has informed us that he will neither accept the degree nor participate in the ceremony,” said Swarthmore president Rebecca Chopp in a statement. “In his words, ‘I don’t want to disrupt what should be a special day for the graduates, their families, and friends. Nor do I have an interest in participating in an unnecessarily controversial event.'”
Not all students think Zoellick’s withdrawal was necessary.
“Holding Zoellick responsible for the particulars of the war, any individual who ever advocated intervention in Iraq, or anyone whom ever served in the Bush Administration, eschews the constructive, nuanced engagement with historical fact that is essential to meaningful political protest,” wrote Sam Sussman and Lorand Laskai, two Swarthmore students, in an op-ed for the Daily Gazette.
And an April Fool’s Day editorial humorously chided graduating students themselves for not being sufficiently liberal, either.
“Swarthmore College announced late Sunday night that it would not be offering degrees to any member of the Class of 2013 who does not intend to found a vegan coffee shop after graduation, calling other professional choices “antithetical to Swarthmore values,” joked the Gazette editorial board.
This was not the first time that a university choosing a conservative commencement speaker provoked outrage from liberal students. Johns Hopkins School of Medicine’s choice of conservative Dr. Ben Carson to speak at commencement drew protests from left-leaning student and faculty members.
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