Choice of Zoellick as Commencement Speaker Sparks Debate

When Swarthmore announced that alumnus and former President of the World Bank Robert Zoellick ’75 would be the 2013 commencement speaker and recipient of an honorary degree, students responded in a multitude of ways.  While many students, especially seniors, questioned why someone who was affiliated with the Bush administration and associated with the war in Iraq deserved to speak at commencement, others responded by saying that not only is he a deserved speaker, but students also are wrong in their perceptions of Zoellick.

“I think that Swarthmore shouldn’t have a litmus test in terms of the politics of a commencement speaker or honorary degrees,” said Sam Sussman ‘13, who feels that Zoellick was an appropriate choice.  “Swarthmore should be an ideologically diverse school. Part of what this episode shows is the real weakness of not having more conservative voices on campus.”

Samantha Bennett ’13, who also is in favor of Zoellick’s speaking at commencement, does not think the controversy represents a political divide on campus, though.

“I wouldn’t call this particular issue a partisan issue, especially considering Zoellick is a liberal himself, but his association with the Bush administration certainly prompted a lot of the extreme responses,” she said. “Instead of looking at associations — with Bush, Goldman Sachs, etc. — perhaps it would be better to look at the facts.”

Still, Facebook comments by seniors include that Zoellick was a “major architect and strongest proponent of the Iraq war” and that “that the administration is wrong to use honorary degrees as a political tool for future favors to the college/recognition/an act that encourages potential alumni donations.” An equal number of comments defending Zoellick exist online.

Sarah Dwider ’13, who has been active in the Facebook debate about the topic, feels that not everybody has handled the situation appropriately.

“With the exception of some comments online, I think students have made an effort to be considerate,” Dwider said. “However, I think a lot of times Swarthmore students forget that their classmates come from a lot of different backgrounds and experiences. This isn’t just a debate in a classroom but something that involves students’ families and their lives outside of Swarthmore. I’m always a fan of having face-to-face conversations where people can better understand each other with fewer miscommunications. I don’t think this happens nearly enough around controversial issues at Swarthmore.”

Sussman feels that the issue with the Facebook debate is not necessarily people’s words but rather their lack of research.

“Blaming Robert Zoellick for the Iraq War would be like blaming Alice Paul for closing Essie Mae’s early,” he said. “They’re vaguely related but have nothing to do with each other. Swat students are really reflective, gifted people. I think part of it has to do with how the campus is disjointed and unrepresentative. The failure to explain exactly what Zoellick did wrong, the assumption that he was responsible for the Iraq War, and the fact that radicals on campus can go from the fact that he’s conservative to that he’s responsible for the Iraq war without research is indicative of the lack of discourse and judgment on campus.”

While Bennett agrees that some Swarthmore students do not have their facts straight, she can see why people might oppose his speaking for other reasons.

“There is certainly a good deal of misunderstanding, and Swarthmore students know better than to make accusations without having done the proper research beforehand,” she said. “One could certainly make other arguments about Zoellick’s decisions while leading the World Bank, for example, but these were not the ones immediately brought up.”

What Sussman and Bennett do agree on, however, is that it will be interesting to hear how a Swarthmore alumnus gained so much political power and how being a Swarthmore graduate contributed to that success. Bennett also added that her father, as an alumnus who was Zoellick’s classmate, was also excited to hear him talk.  A large group of students on campus are equally unexcited, however.

Because of the divide among seniors and the propensity for students to express themselves online, Dwider, with the help of Dean of the Sophomore Class and Director of the Intercultural Center Alina Wong, organized a meeting for students to express how they felt this past Wednesday.

“When this year’s honorary degree recipients were announced, a lot of students I know were surprised to see that Robert Zoellick was chosen alongside [entrepreneur and humanitarian] Tralance Addy ’69 and [novelist and social activist] Lorene Cary,” Dwider said. “I originally planned this meeting to discuss why some students were disappointed with the college’s decision to honor Zoellick and to figure out a constructive way to communicate with the college why it felt like an inappropriate choice.”

Around 25-30 showed up to the meeting. While those presence debated substantially what Zoellick’s role and association with the war in Iraq were, little consensus was reached, according to Bennett. She also said that both sides brought up positive and negative actions of Zoellick, including his role with the Free Trade Agreement in Central America and his role in trying to end the genocide in Darfur.

Another point of discussion at the meeting was how Zoellick’s speaking out affect the comfort of the audience at commencement. While the question of whether the audience would be comfortable with people’s protesting against Zoellick, many reached a consensus that a protest that would disrupt the general ceremony was inappropriate and that a commencement speaker does not define the entire event. Opponents suggested that having someone in the field of political science speak would inevitably bring conflict, no matter who, but proponents responded that Zoellick is the primary choice for anyone related to international relations.

Bennett added that someone at the meeting claimed that the committee said that Zoellick was an obvious choice for an honorary degree.

Unlike other schools that base their commencement speakers on prestige and popularity, Swarthmore chooses its commencement speaker among the Swarthmore alumni who receive an honorary degree that year.

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