Amid congratulations and sentimentality, around 100 members of Barnard’s class of 2014 walked onstage at Radio City Music Hall with strips of red tape on their caps during Barnard’s commencement ceremony on Sunday to show support for those working to change Columbia University’s sexual assault policies.
The show of solidarity came after an email sent to the senior class that morning asked students to wear red tape to raise awareness about a “woefully inadequate set of services” available to survivors of sexual assault.
Richards, whose selection drew some controversy earlier in the semester, spoke about her experiences advocating for causes ranging from apartheid divestment at Brown University, to her mother Ann Richards’ 1990 campaign for governor of Texas, to women’s reproductive rights.
“You all are in a pretty sweet position because everyone, Tom Brokaw to Hillary Clinton, is saying that this is the century of the woman,” Richards said. “And wow, we’ve only had to wait 200,000 years for that, so we’d better get busy.”
Richards talked about the political progress women in the United States have made in the past century.
“Back when my great-grandmother was a girl in Texas, the only folks who couldn’t vote under Texas law were idiots, imbeciles, the insane, and women,” she said. “Wouldn’t you know it, just two generations later, my mother Ann Richards was elected governor of the state.”
Richards also touched on the controversy surrounding her selection as commencement speaker.
“I know there’s been some controversy about my appearance here today,” Richards said. “So can I say, I really appreciate the fact that Barnard students are the kind of people who don’t have to agree with someone to listen to their thoughts.”
Richards urged students to continue being involved in issues they started advocating for in college.
“In your four years at Barnard, you’ve produced ‘The Vagina Monologues,’ you’ve worked on mayoral and presidential campaigns, you’ve tutored kids in the neighborhood, you’ve taken back the night, and today you are getting ready to leave all of that behind you and become a fully functioning adult in your career,” Richards said.
“But all those amazing things you’ve done over the past four years on campus, could actually be your career,” she added. “Think about it, and lead the most incredible life you could have.”
Senior Class President Stephanie Fernandez, BC ’14, and former Barnard Student Government Association President Maddy Popkin, BC ’14, both spoke about using the skills they gained as students to challenge authority.
“Radical care and love has a large impact and can come in small ways, including the simple acts of listening and being present,” Fernandez said. “I believe that one can change the world by loving and perhaps, more importantly, by loving the people within it.”
Popkin talked about Barnard’s role in the advancement of women.
“One hundred and twenty-five years later, we are of course very different from what they imagined,” Popkin said. “We’ve dismantled the patriarchy on Lehman Lawn.”
Still, she said that parts of Barnard’s trans policy could be improved and emphasized the importance of wellness and queer communities on campus.
“I am confident that we will stay true to our commitment to provide quality education to all women, not just those of us who are considered to have a female body, but trans women, too,” Popkin said.
Richards’ message of general action and civic involvement struck a positive note with graduates.
“I’m glad that she embraced the general idea of controversy,” Amelia Lembeck, BC ’14, said.
Kate Christensen, BC ’14 and former president of the Columbia University College Republicans, said she appreciated the approach to general involvement Richards took in light of the controversial nature of Planned Parenthood.
In March, Christensen wrote an op-ed in Spectator arguing that Richards’ selection as speaker unnecessarily alienated many students who were opposed to abortion, of which Planned Parenthood is a major provider.
“I appreciate that it was a call to action, and that she acknowledged what it took for a lot of students and families to be there for her remarks,” Christensen said.
Graduates also said they appreciated the silent protest with red tape.
“I feel like it is important to support each other in all these different things that go on in life,” Allee Karmazyn, BC ’14, said. “And even though I haven’t personally dealt with physical sexual assault, I’ve definitely been harassed—I feel like regardless if you experience it or not, it really affects people’s lives, and the more support you can put out the stronger our world will be.”
Barnard President Debora Spar spoke about the importance of having an environment of different opinions.
“Real diversity is being with people, and crucially listening to people, who share different, even fundamentally different, views. It means looking at these views and thinking about these views even if you wholly disagree with them,” Spar said.
Richards, along with Harvard sociologist Mahzarin Banaji, Xerox CEO Ursula Burns, and musician Patti Smith—who also performed at the ceremony—were all awarded the Barnard Medal of Distinction.
Prepared remarks for all speakers are available on Barnard’s commencement website.