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Wolfensohn Agrees to Private Forum

By Brian Loux


James D. Wolfensohn, president of the World Bank, has accepted a proposal from the office of President Charles M. Vest to meet privately with some 20 members of the MIT community following his address at the upcoming commencement ceremony.

“Wolfensohn agreed to an amazing thing,” said Kirk D. Kolenbrander, special assistant to the president and chancellor. “These 20 people will be very vocal about their criticisms, but he is quite committed to speaking to students and engaging in genuine dialogue about the actions of his organization.”

The request came in response to a petition signed by 368 students and faculty members at MIT, as well as the requests of five representatives of campus organizations who had earlier met with Kolenbrander. The students, Jesse M. Barnes ’02, Arjun Mendiratta G, Payal P. Parekh G, Abigail S. Popp ’02, and Stephanie W. Wang ’04, requested that Wolfensohn appear before an open forum and take questions from members of the MIT community.

Open forum proposal rejected

Kolenbrander and other administrators said they were intrigued by the proposal, but modified it to close the forum to all but a panel of 20 student and faculty leaders versed in matters concerning the World Bank before presenting it to Wolfensohn, who accepted the proposal earlier this month.

Administrators also hope to create a panel discussion on the work of the World Bank sometime before commencement. “It is important that our academic community has the opportunity to disagree,” Kolenbrander said. “We not only value it but expect it.”

Before MIT had received Wolfensohn’s acceptance, Vest wrote in a letter to the five representatives, “Independent of Mr. Wolfensohn’s ability for direct conversation, I hope that our community uses the two months preceding commencement to engage in conversations about the broader topics of capacity building and economic and educational development of nations and lands, including the role of globalization. ... I will join the members of the MIT community in listening critically to Mr. Wolfensohn’s address and in synthesizing my own view on his remarks.”

Students upset over compromise

Members of the group Students for a Democratic Commencement said they were disappointed with the decision to alter their proposal. “While we respect the administration’s attempt at accommodation on this issue, clearly they don’t understand the meaning of the word ‘forum,’ and collectively we cannot endorse such a proposal,” Mendiratta said.

“We do not think the discussion with Mr. Wolfensohn should not happen, just that it’s pathetically insufficient,” said SDC member Julia M. Steinberger G. “How can our groups endorse it, when not everyone in our groups [will be] invited?”

Members also say they are upset that the forum is set up in an undemocratic fashion, paralleling it to the selection of Wolfensohn as commencement speaker. “It seems that the MIT administration is suffering from World Bank syndrome,” said Steinberger. “This event is for a few, while the majority are not asked their opinion.”

The administration is also meeting with more public criticism. Vest currently leads the Big Screw competition for his decisions on commencement by approximately $100 as of Thursday.

Kolenbrander acknowledged the students’ complaints, and said he realized that not everyone would share his objective of having Wolfensohn engage in “shared dialogue” with the student body while at MIT. “The constraints on the event give it the best possible chance of creating a true dialogue that will be much different than facing a crowd of 2000,” he said.

Kolenbrander said that students would provide leadership for the discussions in deciding the format and makeup of the two panel discussions.

SDC to lead forum organization

Though upset with the overall decision, SDC has decided to assist in the panel’s selection process.

“We would like to propose a selection process that is truly democratic and truly represents the diversity of this campus, rather than hand picking participants based on who knows whom,” Parekh said. “In addition, so that a larger number of MIT’s community can benefit from this conversation, we insist that there be representatives from the media in the room to report on the event.”

Steinberger said the students hope to “assemble a diverse group of students, representing the many countries the World Bank has had an impact on.”

Those who are interested in being a member of the panel can e-mail for further information.

“I’m grateful for the willingness of students toward creating dialogue,” Kolenbrander said.

The SDC is also planning creating the earlier forum. “We are working with the administration to plan a large open event showing the different aspects of the new global economy,” Steinberger said.