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Wolfensohn Prompts Rival Petitions

By Jessica A. Zaman


Last week’s announcement that World Bank President James D. Wolfensohn will speak at the 2002 Commencement exercises sparked heated controversy among members of the MIT community.

Students almost immediately responded with a pair of petitions, one against Wolfensohn speaking, and the other in support of him. While one group of students argued that a commencement ceremony is not an appropriate forum for such a controversial speaker, another argued that it is indeed the perfect forum.

Sanjay Basu ’02, president of United Trauma Relief, is a chief proponent of a petition protesting Wolfensohn’s selection.

Basu argued that many MIT students will be marginalized by the presence of such a controversial speaker. “Many MIT students have directly been affected by the many failures of the World Bank,” Basu said.

“Graduation is a time for celebration, not protest. It would be okay to invite Wolfensohn to speak in a debate panel or a lecture, not commencement,” he said.

However, others disagree. “I believe Wolfensohn’s presence will initiate discussion on campus,” said Jimmy Wu ’02, initiator of a “counter-petition” petition. “It has already initiated discussion.”

Hundreds sign petition

Soon after Wolfensohn was announced as commencement speaker, a petition was circulated via e-mail. Currently, a written version of the petition has been posted throughout campus, including in undergraduate dormitories. “We haven’t counted the signatures yet, but it has definitely exceeded 200,” Basu said.

However, the administration’s potential response to the petition remains uncertain. Basu claimed that whether the administration responds to the petition or not, his mission will be complete. “The petition is a formality. It is our way of telling the administration that we object to their procedure,” Basu said. “They did not select a speaker from the lists proposed by either the Undergraduate Association or the Graduate Student Council.”

Administration backs decision

President Charles M. Vest said that in light of the world’s current situation, it is a good time for a speaker from an organization that addresses issues of poverty, inclusion, education, and development.

“It would be nice if every student would be really happy with the selection, but that is never the case. I believe our community will treat its visitors with dignity and respect,” Vest said.

Basu said that the administration is unaware of the response Wolfensohn’s presence will generate. “I don’t think they know that many groups, not just MIT students, will be protesting.”

Due to the high profile of MIT, Basu said he expects organizations such as those who protested against the World Trade Organization in Seattle to protest during Commencement.

Others support Wolfensohn

Some students, however, feel very differently. “I do not believe that Sanjay’s petition exhibits the opinions of the majority of students on campus,” Wu said.

Wu’s petition began circulating at approximately the same time as the other petition. There are approximately 30 signatures on the petition currently, Wu said.

“I felt that MIT students needed an alternative choice,” Wu said. He said that Wolfensohn’s presence will “open up discussion about both good and bad aspects of the World Bank.”

“If we succeed in disinviting Wolfensohn it will demonstrate that MIT students no longer care about World Bank. That would be a very bad thing,” Wu said.