On May 18, Barnard’s commencement speaker will be Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America and the Planned Parenthood Action Fund. For some, her speech will be an inspiring moment from an admired hero. For others, it will be an experience of profound alienation.
While I do not question the efforts and intentions of the administration in choosing the commencement speaker, it is truly devastating that Barnard chose a speaker who bears the banner of abortion—one of the most polarizing, impassioned subjects of morality in the history of modern civilization. For an event that is supposed to be celebratory, uniting, and joyous, why must the school choose a speaker who is so deeply divisive?
I am not writing to convince or sway opinion as it relates to any of the services or affiliations that Planned Parenthood and Richards represent. I am writing to give voice to the deep struggle that Barnard diminishes and disregards by choosing her as a commencement speaker.
I doubt that Barnard would ever consider a Palestinian social justice crusader to speak at commencement, just as it would never consider an Israeli political champion. The clashes in ideology and beliefs are simply too schismatic for Barnard to approach. Similarly, if the school were to choose Condoleezza Rice, a woman of groundbreaking accomplishment and great esteem, major protest would be instigated by students and community members who vehemently disagree with her policies.
By choosing such a controversial figure, Barnard implies that students who take deep offense to this choice do not have valid concerns, and their beliefs do not matter. Choosing a speaker of such moral and political controversy seems to assume that the opposing minority will be shamed into silence for their beliefs and will take this decision more or less sitting down. Perhaps Barnard, in whatever calculus it is doing, does not care about offending and isolating students like me, families in attendance like mine, or beliefs like the ones I hold.
It is true that Planned Parenthood offers accessible health care to millions of underserved women in America in the form of cancer screenings, birth control, and other gynecological services. However, in 2009, it also carried out more than a third of the nation’s abortions. Though abortions are a minority of the services rendered by Planned Parenthood, Richards’ role there has been largely focused on fundraising for and endowing abortion operations of the organization.
It would be perfectly appropriate for Richards to speak to interested students at another event on campus. But because she represents an issue that many from Barnard’s community find morally reprehensible at the most fundamental level, her presence at Barnard’s commencement cannot be justified. Her presence will cause nothing short of polarizing estrangement and offense for a significant population of the Barnard community—students, family, friends, and employees.
For a school, that in my experience, has been so embracing and promoting of pluralities in religious, feminist, philosophical, professional, ethnic, and educational ideologies, it is shocking to see such a blatant dismissal of moral and political perspectives. Barnard chooses Cecile Richards to represent the culmination of our class’s time here at the peril of its own integrity. A speaker who so harshly alienates a significant population of people will only deter them from joining our Barnard community in years to come—whether as future students, professors, or affiliates. This will only contribute to the existing lack of ideological diversity at Barnard. With this choice, Barnard participates in a brain drain of intellectual diversity, and our student body suffers for it.
I have always been grateful that Barnard is a community that is open to honest discussion and debate of all issues. However, next time, I hope that Barnard considers in its choice a speaker who will truly unify and celebrate the diversity of perspectives and accomplishments that the graduating class represents. I call upon the officers of the College to recognize the long-term potential for damage that this choice has on the Barnard community.
I hope Richards is able to give us meaningful encouragement and life advice as we gather together one final time before departing Barnard, drawing upon her experience as a leader, as a spouse, and as a parent to inspire us to aim high and help others. Barnard needs to holistically consider the emotional collateral it places on students when making decisions like this in the future. As a community, I hope we can proceed with consciences more acutely aware of the diverse ideologies and opinions that need protection and support.
The author is a Barnard College senior majoring in political science. She is the president of the Columbia University College Republicans.
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