Posted by Andrew Shi
On April 25, President Glotzbach sent a four-paged email to the Skidmore community. The email addressed the controversy surrounding the choice of Cynthia Carroll, the outgoing CEO of Anglo-American, as one of two commencement speakers.
In the email, Glotzbach recognized that more should -- and would -- be done to gauge student opinion on future commencement speakers."Going forward, we will charge the Junior Class Officers to solicit their classmates more actively...In addition, I will confer with the Board of Trustees and members of the SGA leadership to see if there are other ways to include student voices more effectively in this process."
President Glotzbach also revealed that, at the request of students who attended last week's teleconference and subsequent discussion, the administration would explore the possibility of inviting a third commencement speaker. In a separate interview, Glotzbach confirmed that the administration is "looking into various options," but also emphasized that finding a speaker on such short notice was unprecedented.
The bulk of Glotzbach's email served as a defense of the administration's decision to invite Carroll as a speaker. Students opposed to her presence have argued that her work contradicts Skidmore's values of "environmental sustainability and social justice." Glotzbach disagreed, asserting that she stood for the same values and practiced those as CEO, just in a different, subtler, fashion. Glotzbach asked in his email if there is "just one ethically privileged way to change the world, or are there multiple legitimate, and therefore praiseworthy, pathways toward achieving the goals we all share?"
Glotzbach conceded that the mining industry was far from perfect and said that he believed Carroll would agree with him on this. He argued though, that under the tutelage of Carroll, Anglo-American vastly improved in both areas of student concern. Glotzbach adumbrated a short list of some of her achievements that spanned from improving Anglo-Americans environmentally-friendly standing in a list of 500 major companies by 39 places, to dramatically expanding "programs for HIV/AIDs prevention and treatment among workers and their families in South Africa, improving the lives of more than 100,000 individuals."
Glotzbach continued to argue that while Carroll's work may not have been the kind of revolutionary change some Skidmore students expect, it was progress nevertheless. For Glotzbach, "developing and implementing such an efficacious plan for change usually requires analysis of systems and how to influence or reengineer them. Such work can be incremental or revolutionary. Often it is frustrating and slow." The argument, it seems, boiled down to 'is the world better off now than it was before the arrival of Carroll?' Glotzbach, in his letter, said yes.
Glotzbach argued that as much as creative thought matters, so does implementing grand schemes, and sometimes that implementation can only come in small doses. "If a person has a wonderful idea for a building, but that building is never constructed, it just remains a thought," said Glotzbach in the interview. He continued to say that, "Lucy Scribner wanted to construct a school that educated both the mind and hand."
According to Glotzbach, Carroll embodies the practice of creative thought and hand, and that she was able to achieve the environmental and social justice change she envisaged.
In his email, Glotzbach emphasized the hand portion, something arguably forgotten and ostensibly left out in Skidmore's motto "Creative Though Matters." Returning to the issue of Carroll and previous episodes of protest, Glotbazch said that while criticism from students has been appreciated, few plans beyond demanding that the administration do something have been proposed. "To protest you don't need all the answers... but at a certain point, especially when criticizing someone, 'what do you want to see happen' is a legitimate question."
Glotzbach then recalled the teleconference meeting where students from United Minds, an ad hoc club designed to protest Carroll, were asked by a faculty member "what do you want to happen."
Glotzbach "did not find the response to be compelling."
Up to this point, much of the protest against Carroll has just asked for her to be disinvited, but has avoided proposing solutions to prevent future situations. Although, as aforementioned, progress has been made in securing a larger role for students in their choice of commencement speaker in the future.
Currently, a petition is circulating that requests Carroll withdraw as commencement speaker. It is unclear how many have signed the petition, nor how many seniors have signed the petition, a distinction Glotbazch finds to be important, as "it is their commencement."
The protest of Cynthia Carroll as a commencement speaker is not unique to Skidmore College. This past semester, Swarthmore also faced a similar problem, as students opposed the choice of Robert Zoellick, who, among many things, was a foreign adviser to President George W. Bush during his 2000 election. The case of Zoellick is eerily similar to Carroll's current situation, as Zoellick is an alumnus of Swarthmore. Zoellick, though, after weeks of protest, rescinded his invitation and declined his honorary degree.
The episode received national attention, much of it unfavorable. The Washington Post interviewed Josh Wheeler, the director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, a legal policy group at the University of Virginia, who said that these kind of pretests were a form of censorship, and called "the ability of a small but vocal group to limit the choices of a much larger majority," the heckler veto."
In the same article, previous president of the University of Wisconsin Robert O'Neil, who experienced similar protests in the 1980, said, "what people see as evidence of political correctness is not what's going on. The harshest thing I see is that we engage more in self-censorship, but that's a long way from succumbing to political correctness."
After Zoellick cancelled his appearance, "many students on campus...said amongst themselves that they are disappointed a vocal and misguided minority ruined an opportunity to hear Zoellick speak," wrote Daniele Charette, a student at Swarthmore, in The College Fix, an online Newspaper.
It is still unclear how many students support or disagree with the choice of Cynthia Carroll. But only once in recent years has a commencement speaker cancelled, and it was due to sudden family matters. In 2001, students protested against the invitation of Joseph L. Bruno a past republican majority leader of NYS senate and alumnus from the class of '52, but Bruno still delivered his commencement speech. Glotzbach has promised to make the process more transparent in the future and will update the community on the search for a third commencement speaker. Cynthia Carroll is still expected to speak at commencement and receive an honorary degree. Commencement is scheduled for May 18.