A Speaker Withdraws at Swarthmore

April 8, 2013

Robert Zoellick withdrew on Friday as Swarthmore College's commencement speaker, following criticism from some students that his support for the Iraq war and his role in the administration of President George W. Bush is at odds with the college’s Quaker roots.

"I don't want to disrupt what should be a special day for the graduates, their families, and friends," Zoellick said Friday, according to an e-mail Swarthmore's president, Rebecca Chopp, sent to the college's students and faculty members. "Nor do I have an interest in participating in an unnecessarily controversial event."

Zoellick, a Swarthmore alumnus, was scheduled to speak and receive an honorary degree (which he says he will not now accept) at the college’s commencement on June 2. Zoellick was appointed by President Bush as deputy secretary of state in 2005, and nominated by Bush as president of the World Bank in 2007. He has also been associated with the Project for a New American Century, a neoconservative think tank that pushed strongly for the war in Iraq. In 1998, Zoellick was one of the signers of a letter from PNAC to President Clinton urging military intervention against Saddam Hussein.

Swarthmore, while nonsectarian, remains proud of its Quaker roots, including an anti-war tradition.

“I, and many others, are opposed to Zoellick’s honorary degree for a number of reasons. His tenure at the World Bank and as U.S. Trade Representative are among them,” a Swarthmore student who identified as “Will L.” posted on the website of the Swarthmore Daily Gazette in late March. “So is his time in the private sector, when he worked at Goldman Sachs and Fannie Mae -- two institutions that would later become infamous for their role in the 2008 financial collapse. So is his role in helping build an ideological foundation for the Iraq War. His whole career has been built on one morally dubious enterprise after another."

Other students said the case against Zoellick was exaggerated or nonexistent. “Boiling down Zoellick’s impressive public service career to the Iraq War is not only a gross mischaracterization; it’s factually wrong. Zoellick was not involved in the execution of the Iraq War, period,” Tyler Becker wrote in Swarthmore's campus newspaper The Phoenix in March. “The mere attribution of Iraq policy to Zoellick suggests a reticence among my fellow students to equate anyone involved in the Bush administration with a war they dislike.”

Indeed some have taken the debate as a sign that students may not welcome those who disagree with any of their views. The Swarthmore Daily Gazette mocked the controversy and those who seek ideological purity in the publication's April Fool's Day edition, writing that the college had made the decision that it "would not be offering degrees to any member of the Class of 2013 who does not intend to found a vegan coffee shop after graduation, calling other professional choices 'antithetical to Swarthmore values.' "

Maurice Eldridge, Swarthmore’s vice president for college and community relations, said in an interview before Zoellick withdrew that the college was committed to diversity of perspective.

“Over our very long history we’ve invited alums of many perspectives and fields … to come back and speak, and typically, in fact, when we do so, we usually have 3 or 4 speakers,” Eldridge said, “all of which reflect the college’s commitment to leaders who … can make a difference…. We don’t find that Robert Zoellick is out of that practice.”

While Eldridge defended the selection of Zoellick as a speaker, he also praised debate among the student body, which he said was “going on pretty civilly between them.”

“Some of the students question the facts in that conversation,” Eldridge said of the war, “and I’m glad they’re having that kind of conversation where they’re challenging one another along intellectual lines.”

Ben Berger, who teaches a course on participatory democracy at Swarthmore, said he was similarly pleased with the debate being generated.

“The students seem heavily in favor of Zoellick's coming here. I have asked several of my classes for their impressions of the political climate, and that's the impression I've come away with,” Berger said via e-mail before Zoellick made his announcement. “Yet I'm proud of the relatively small minority of students who have questioned Zoellick's appropriateness, because what are we as an academic and ethical community if we don't have free inquiry? It takes courage to stand against the majority, not only the majority of students but the majority of faculty. So I'm proud of the dissenters.”

"[Zoellick] is a model for students who want to combine knowledge with service, ethics with outreach, and wisdom with a commitment to the wider world," Chopp said in her statement. "Swarthmore is very proud to claim him as an alumnus and stands by its decision to award him the honorary degree."


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