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Commencement Speaker May Hold Public Forum

By Jennifer DeBoer


A petition to hold a public forum featuring this year’s controversial commencement speaker James D. Wolfensohn prior to graduation has been brought to President Charles M. Vest.

Special Assistant to the President Kirk D. Kolenbrander said Vest will respond to the petition in a matter of days.

“It would be ideal to have this forum before graduation to raise people’s consideration,” said Arjun Mendiratta G, one of the students who led the opposition to Wolfensohn’s selection as speaker.

“At a university that wants to foster debate, an alternate speaker should be presented and questions should be allowed,” Sanjay Basu ’02 said.

“People will be better prepared to listen to what James Wolfensohn has to say” if a forum is held in adavance, Mendiratta said.

Forum is second response

This is the second petition drafted in response to the choice of Wolfensohn as speaker.

“The first petition asked [President Vest] to respect or consider opposing viewpoints,” Mendiratta said. “We asked them, if not to rescind [the decision to have Wolfensohn speak], at least to present a counterbalancing speaker.”

In the few weeks that first petition was circulated, 368 signatures were procured. Though not all signatories were members of the graduating class, a “significant percentage” were seniors.

Wolfensohn not seen as exemplary

“The speaker should represent the ideals of what seniors should aspire to be,” Basu said. “[Wolfensohn] is not a fair example of what we should be doing as a class.”

Basu, who drafted the petition, is also fundamentally opposed to having Wolfensohn as speaker.

“Just based on what he’s done, I think it’s horrible,” Basu said. “His organization fails at a good third of its projects, which result in millions of ruined lives. Especially with forced displacement, international students at MIT have been affected.”

“Especially since this is the first time [Wolfensohn] has come to speak at MIT, calling him as someone to look up to, someone who internationally called a failure by every economics professor I know,” Basu said.

MIT’s responsibility questioned

Though administration and students agree that MIT should recognize the variety of opinions on issues concerning Wolfensohn, they disagree on how this duty should be fulfilled.

“MIT, as an institute of higher learning has a responsibility to encourage development and foster diversity of opinion. Especially if you bring in someone like James Wolfensohn, there’s a certain obligation to ensure that all viewpoints are recognized,” Mendiratta said.

Kolenbrander, on the other hand, believes that the controversy surrounding Wolfensohn makes him an ideal speaker.

“I think that one of the most important things at an intellectual community is difference of opinion. It is important and expected that on matters there is a broad range of perspectives,” Kolenbrander said. “I’d be disappointed if all members of our community don’t feel strongly. I know that Wolfensohn represents some of the most important issues of our time.”

Student input disregarded

Though both the UA president and the GSC president presented five suggestions for commencement speaker, they were not recognized, according to Mendiratta. Wolfensohn was not among the suggested speakers.

“The commencement speaker is selected by the president and the invitation has been made,” Kolenbrander said.

“Personally my problem with [Wolfensohn] is that I have different views on global issues, but that’s not really the point,” Mendiratta said.

“What’s unacceptable is having a speaker who represents such a policy and not offering any challenge to that,” Basu said.

Alternative speakers suggested

Besides the original ten suggestions offered by the UA and the GSC, the students who are urging administration to offer a forum and to reconsider their decision for Commencement speaker also made up a list of speakers they saw as more appropriate. Among them were Joseph E. Stiglitz PhD ’67, a Nobel Prize Winner in Economics, and Arundhati Roy, an author and winner of the Booker Prize.

In addition, 35 students have signed a petition to substitute Laurence Turead (“Mr. T”) as Commencement speaker.

Protesters disruptive, necessary

Because of Wolfensohn’s prominence as head of the controversial World Bank, his presence often draws organized protests.

“You have to think that they’ll show up,” Mendiratta said. “There are certain groups that show up wherever Wolfensohn speaks that need to voice their opposition.”

The question of security, not only for Wolfensohn, but for the graduates themselves, arose from the expected protests.

“It’s a matter that all of us take seriously,” Kolenbrander said. “Commencement needs to be a celebration. Protesters have very important rights to oppose that will have to be balanced to keep graduation respectful and safe.”

“The security of the graduates is the primary concern,” Mendiratta said.