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Organizers Plan Lottery to Select Attendees at Wolfensohn Meeting

By Keith J. Winstein


MIT students who wish to attend a private meeting with World Bank President James D. Wolfensohn will be selected by random lottery, the event’s organizers have decided.

Jesse M. Barnes ’02, Arjun Mendiratta G, Payal P. Parekh G, and Stephanie W. Wang ’04 met Sunday to decide on a selection procedure for the closed-door meeting to be held on June 7 with Wolfensohn, this year’s commencement speaker.

Students interested in attending the event should send e-mail to the organizers’ contact address,, Parekh said. Other details, such as the deadline to apply for the lottery, will be decided by the group and widely communicated in the next week.

Meeting limited to 20 students

The meeting’s attendance is limited to about 20 registered students “to enable dialog to take place,” said Kwabena Amankway-Ayeh, Wolfensohn’s speechwriter and assistant. “The interaction is going to be better when the group is as small as we are trying to work out right now,” Amankway-Ayeh said.

“Our experience has been that once you bring in cameras and videotapes and things like that, [students] become antagonistic,” he said. “We want an engagement, a dialog completely out of the hearts and minds of everybody.”

Kirk D. Kolenbrander, special assistant to the president and chancellor, said the event represented a compromise. With the attendance limit and The Tech as the only permitted press, “This isn’t the meeting the students want,” he said. “While it’s not what we asked for, it’s a good thing.”

Meeting may help resolve conflicts

“I have reasonable expectations of the opportunity for our students to persuade [Wolfensohn] in some dimensions,” Kolenbrander said. “Look, the World Bank isn’t going to change radically as a result of this [meeting], but in some small ways there may be some change.”

The student organizers, who include the four individuals at the Sunday meeting as well as Abigail S. Popp ’02, expressed less optimism.

“I think there is utility to this event, and there are some merits to it, but I think it’s also a disappointment,” Parekh said. “It’s a university, and it’s good to have debates and open discussion about issues. It’s a shame that 20 people on the campus get to participate when Wolfensohn will speak to a captive audience [at commencement], and no one is allowed to ask questions.”

Vest made ‘passionate appeal’

Amankwah-Ayeh said Wolfensohn was happy to be coming to MIT. “I just want the students to know Mr. Wolfensohn doesn’t see [the controversy over his selection as commencement speaker] as bad at all,” he said.

“Perhaps when he comes to speak you’ll understand why he’s coming to give this specific speech at MIT,” he said. “There are 10 commencement addresses that he has turned down for this year only,” Amankwah-Ayeh said, adding that Wolfensohn decided to come to MIT partly because “President Vest made such a passionate appeal.”

President Charles M. Vest said that Amankway-Ayeh was probably referring “to discussing with [Wolfensohn] my passion for MIT OpenCourseWare and the role it can play in creating education opportunity in the developing world.”

Amankway-Ayeh said the controversy at MIT over Wolfensohn’s selection as commencement speaker is unprecedented at previous graduate addresses he has given. “Now all of a sudden we find this controversy on campus,” he said.

“It is great that we actually get this level of controversy because it helps to get everybody on board,” Amankway-Ayeh said. He said that it was good for academic discourse “that we get these shades of opinion. It is the basic human rights of all individuals to express their opinions.”

Organizers plan other forums

The five student organizers are also planning other forums, including a screening of the film “Life and Debt,” on June 6, the day before commencement.

“We wanted to think of a creative way to providing an alternative viewpoint to what James Wolfensohn is presenting at commencement,” Parekh said. The film “chronicles the effect that policies, many of which were handed down by the [International Monetary Fund] and the World Bank, have had on the people of Jamaica.”

The filmmaker, Stephanie Black, will come to MIT to host “a question and answer session after the screening of the film,” Parekh said.

“The reason we’re doing this is not because we want to be a pain in the ass,” Parekh said. “It’s because we want to ensure that there’s a debate on campus, because this is a big issue, and we want to educate our fellow students.”