Following President Rebecca Chopp’s campus-wide email announcing that Robert Zoellick would not be speaking at commencement or accepting his honorary degree, a number of students vented their anger towards the campus intellectual environment. Some took Zoellick’s decision not to come to campus as evidence of a widely intolerant student body intimidating a renowned alum. Others continued to see discussions about Zoellick’s appropriateness as a graduation speaker as a necessary form of discourse.
Those upset that Zoellick would not be speaking at graduation or accepting his honorary degree linked his decision to an intellectually oppressive campus environment. Kingston Pung ’16 explained that he saw students’ decision to question the choice of Zoellick as a commencement speaker as extremely disrespectful and intolerant.
“Politics aside, he’s an alumni [sic] of Swarthmore who graduated from the school, went through everything that we went through, worked extremely hard, and became wildly successful,” Pung said. “To imagine him being excited to come back to Swarthmore and share with the senior class the ways in which his Swarthmore education affected his life, and then for him to be rejected because of the intolerance of this community of different political ideas is staggeringly disrespectful.”
Pung believes that this disrespect and intolerance are antithetical to Swarthmore’s professed values, adding that the student body does not truly embody the ideals of tolerance which are at the core of the school’s Quaker roots.
“That’s a gross misrepresentation of what the actual student body acts like, as opposed to values which they purport to stand for,” Pung said.
History Professor Timothy Burke weighed in on the debate over Zoellick as well on his blog, expressing the belief that Zoellick, as a Swarthmore alum, should not have been judged based on his politics. “It would take an extraordinary act of specific malice and evil before I would think to disown a student, an alumni [sic], from this … community … the central value of a liberal arts education, as I see it, is that we exert no mastery or ownership over what our students will become, and love them all for what they are and will be,” Burke wrote.
A common theme of shame prevailed across numerous student Facebook postings related to Zoellick. Students seemed to feel that their classmates had scared away a prominent graduate, and felt embarrassed as a result.
“I can’t believe I’m a part of such a self-righteous and entitled class. I’m so ashamed of some of my classmates right now,” one senior wrote. Many members of the senior class, as well as underclassmen posted similar statements.
Other students felt that the discussion of whether or not Zoellick was an appropriate graduation speaker and recipient of an honorary degree was comprised of completely reasonable questions, and did not see these discussions as evidence of an intolerant or oppressive community.
One senior, Jane*, explained, “The sense that I got was that the meetings were meant to be a space for students to have a face-to-face discussion about why some students had an issue with Zoellick coming and what kind of response people would be comfortable with.”
Jane expressed confidence in Swarthmore’s ability to conduct discussions about difficult issues. “Swarthmore is the kind of community that can foster having hard discussions, and we should have hard discussions,” Jane said.
These discussions, for Jane, are an integral and vital part of shaping the Swarthmore community. “We’re allowed to talk about things. We’re allowed to have opinions and disagree, and that’s an important part of being at Swarthmore,” she said.
Eddie Zhang ’13, like Jane, believes that the discussion over Zoellick was productive and reasonable. “Disagreement is highly necessary for any kind of growth,” Zhang said. “Our time as educated elites to understand problems beyond the mere recycling of talking points is long overdue.”
Anna Stitt ’13 agreed that the discussions about Zoellick were appropriate, adding that she would have worried if students did not discuss their commencement speaker before graduation.
“I think [the discussion’s] presence indicates a subculture within Swarthmore of critical thinking and a willingness to paint outside the lines of what is endorsed by the dominant power structure and the institutional apparatus of Swarthmore,” she said.
For Stitt, the tolerant community sought by many students originates in discussion. “Striving to be a community that is tolerant of a variety of perspectives and experiences begins with respecting the dissension and critical questions around the decision to invite Robert Zoellick to speak,” Stitt said.
Stitt also raised questions about the perspectives of those angered by the discussions of Zoellick. “I hope we can use this opportunity to critically reflect on the power apparatus operating on our campus, in which some communities are shamed for raising their voices, while others are defended as victimized and marginalized,” Stitt said.
One alum still felt that the controversy over the choice of Zoellick as a commencement speaker was valid. Mark Schwartz ‘75, who took political science classes with Zoellick during their time together at Swarthmore, said that the issue was unrelated to intolerance of different political opinions. “Tolerance means the free flow of information and of speech,” Schwartz said. “I’m sure [Zoellick] would be welcome to speak at any time or any place at Swarthmore during the academic year. This isn’t about tolerance or intolerance, it’s about whether or not you honor somebody within the highest ideals of Swarthmore’s Quaker tradition.”
*Jane is a pseudonym.