Posted by The Editorial Board
There has been, in the past few weeks, a notable rumbling amongst the Skidmore student body about a topic few people pay much attention to until graduation day - the commencement speaker. Earlier this month, in a letter to the senior class and their families, President Glotzbach announced that David Brooks of the New York Times would speak, as would Cynthia Carroll, a 1978 alumnus of Skidmore, and former CEO of the mining conglomerate Anglo-American. David Brooks seems not to have spurred much attention (which is a shame, he is a great reporter). Ms. Carroll, conversely, has caused much outcry. Students have pointed out that Anglo-American has a less than perfect environmental record, and has been accused by some of human rights violations. Others are upset that even just the name of her former employer - Anglo-American - is a slap in the face to students of color.
We, however, defend the choice of Ms. Carroll as a commencement speaker. The purpose of a commencement speech is - if we may steal words from a commencement speech given by David Foster Wallace in 2005 - to be "about your liberal arts education's meaning, to try to explain why the degree you are about to receive has actual human value." The purpose too, of a commencement speech, is to broadly instill upon the graduating class a final piece of advice that will somehow help those graduates after they leave college And, for the love of god, to do it in less than half an hour. And there is no arguing that Ms. Carroll has been successful - she was named Forbes' fourth most powerful woman in 2007, and ran the second largest mining firm in the world. It is in this that we see the virtue of Ms. Carroll as a commencement speaker, as surely, somewhere in her long path, she has gleaned some piece of insight into how to live, and how to be successful at whatever you choose.
Students have questioned what message the choice of a former CEO of a mining company with a dubious environmental record sends, especially after Skidmore just won a national environmental award. We feel the need to point out that Ms. Carroll has not been brought in to give a speech on environmental activism - which would rightly require much outrage - nor has she been asked to give a speech as an advocate of the mining industry. She has been asked to give a speech as a Skidmore graduate, as a woman, and as a successful woman. She has been asked to give a speech as someone who has worked hard, who has managed to balance a rich family life as the mother of four children with a distinguished career. She has been asked to give a speech, most importantly of all, as someone who the board of trustees think might just be able to impart some wisdom upon the graduating class. We ask only that they listen.