Over the past days, a minor controversy has arisen over the principal speaker at the 2009 Commencement ceremony, Clarence Otis ’77 (“Clarence Otis to speak at 220th Commencement,” March 18, 2009). For those who have not yet heard about Otis’ abundant qualifications: he graduated from Williams Phi Beta Kappa, is CEO of Darden Restaurants, operator of several widespread restaurant chains, including Red Lobster and the Olive Garden, and as such, is currently one of four African American CEOs of a Fortune 500 company.
The controversy, which has been unraveling online on Williams Students Online (WSO), concerned allegations in an article published in Orion magazine that Red Lobster is at fault for unfortunate business practices in the Bangladeshi shrimp trade due not to any direct action by the company, but only to its purchase of 5 percent of the world’s shrimp. Red Lobster’s connection to the real injustices of that trade is at best tenuous, and any connection to Otis more tenuous still.
Furthermore, I would argue that it would be impossible to secure a Commencement speaker from the corporate world half as spectacularly qualified as Otis who would not be tied by such shaky links to some morally imperfect trade, somewhere in the world. His profession has perhaps the strongest direct and indirect effect on the lives of Williams graduates of any available; this alone would suggest that his Commencement address will be worth the time of those who attend.
I believe this matter is indicative of a deeper problem at Williams. Some Williams students appear to thrive on moral outrage, apparently requiring it intellectually as they require air and water physically; they seem to seek it out, settling for any basis for indignation, no matter how insubstantial. Together they can form a vicious vocal minority, and though such a minority may by chance fall upon a legitimate issue, they are just as likely to represent insinuations and exaggerations as actionable evidence. The damage this tendency may do is only preventable through the alertness, skepticism and care of the Williams community.
Pat Chaney ’10