Selection of Commencement speaker, Bloomberg, sparks controversy

On March 19, the Record announced that Michael R. Bloomberg, three-term mayor of New York, philanthropist and entrepreneur, would be the principal speaker at Commencement. The decision garnered a variety of responses with some members of the community vocally opposing the College’s selection. Much of the opposition concerns Bloomberg’s controversial policies during his tenure as mayor, most notably the stop-and-frisk practice and the surveillance of American Muslims, which have been criticized as civil rights violations.

Stop-and-Frisk

Stop-Question-and-Frisk, known as stop-and-frisk, is a practice of the New York Police Department (NYPD) where police officers stop and question pedestrians whom officers find suspicious and frisk them for contraband. The New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) found that from the beginning of Bloomberg’s tenure in 2002 to 2011, the number of stops increased by over 600 percent. In 2011 alone, officers conducted over 680,000 stops, according to a report from the Public Advocate’s Office. Of those stopped, blacks or Latinos constituted roughly 85 percent. The stops found 768 guns in the year but had an overall 88.3-percent innocent rate.

Crime in New York City under Bloomberg’s tenure experienced a drop. According to Bloomberg’s office, the city’s incarceration rate dropped by 36 percent between 2001 and 2012 and has become “the safest big city in the nation.” While Bloomberg has partly attributed the drop in crime to stop-and-frisk, critics argue that the practice has not been proven to reduce crime.

“[Stop-and-frisk] is unjust and discriminatory, a form of racial profiling that takes its meaning from the context of this nation’s massive imprisonment of its citizens, especially poor people of color,” Mark Reinhardt, Class of 1956 professor of American civilization, said. “Racialized incarceration obviously has many other sources, but it is the backdrop against which stop-and-frisk is particularly damaging and offensive.”

Surveillance of American Muslims

In 2011 and 2012, the Associated Press (AP) published reports revealing that the NYPD was spying on Muslims in New York City and surrounding areas. Since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the NYPD has become one of the most active domestic intelligence agencies. The NYPD sent undercover officers to potential “hot spots,” including family businesses, mosques, schools and community centers, to eavesdrop on and scrutinize Muslim civilians.

The AP determined that the NYPD “subjected entire neighborhoods to surveillance and scrutiny, often because of the ethnicity of the residents, not because of any accusations of crimes.” After the story broke, Bloomberg vocally supported the surveillance. In early 2012, he spoke at over a dozen universities defending the practice as a necessary tool of counterterrorism.

The NYPD dismantled this surveillance unit in early April. In its coverage of the story on April 15, the New York Times noted, “the police acknowledged that it never generated a lead.”

The Honorary Degree Committee

The Honorary Degree Committee is composed of three faculty members, one from each division; four students, two juniors and two seniors; the President; the College Marshall and several trustees. Every year, the Committee selects candidates for honorary degrees, presenting the nominations to President Falk and the Committee on Degrees of the Board of Trustees. Selections of honorary degree recipients are made at least a year in advance.

According to Harry Gilbert ’14, a former Committee member who resigned prior to the confirmation of Bloomberg as commencement speaker, Bloomberg’s policies were considered in the discussion regarding his nomination. “I had been present when his name had been proposed. I had relinquished my position because of the generally uncritical consideration of candidates, as had been the case with Bloomberg,” Gilbert said. “Bloomberg’s continuation and explicit racialization of stop-and-frisk; his re-zoning and development policies, which have displaced and restricted the housing options for residents of color and low-income; and his neoliberalization of social welfare programs, which has created the circumstances for an unprecedented surge in homelessness: all, among others, were, in one way or another, raised as concerns, and all were brushed aside as trivialities.”

The Opposition

After Bloomberg was announced as this year’s commencement speaker, several members of the community, students, faculty, administrators and staff, have voiced their opposition to the Committee’s decision.

Bilal Ansari, assistant director of the Center of Learning in Action, Lehman Council advisor and Muslim Chaplain, protested this decision on the steps of Chapin Hall on April 10 and 11. He held posters with messages such as “ALL MUSLIMS ARE SUSPECTS!” and “AM I WILLIAMS?” The Record ran a photo of this in last week’s issue.

“The purpose [of the protest] was threefold,” Ansari said. “One: to make the Board of Trustees who were visiting campus aware of my discontent with their decision, two: to respond affirmatively to [Ahmad Greene-Hayes ’16 and Cinnamon Williams ’16 who published an open letter through Kaleido[scopes]: Diaspora Re-imagined on April 9 addressing various campus controversies including Bloomberg] and three: to call for dialogue and unity.”

Ansari spoke to administrators about his concerns. “Their response was ‘This decision is made over a year ago.’ The truth is, that was during the height of the most public outcry [of the NYPD’s surveillance of Muslims], which is just more shameful,” Ansari said. “Literally as his name was being considered as commencement speaker by our college, his public record created outcries by millions of innocent citizens of color, and peer institutions were protesting his unconstitutional breaches of civil liberties of their Muslim students.”

Ansari does not protest the College’s inviting Bloomberg but rather the symbolic significance of his being Commencement speaker. “If Bloomberg were to come in April or May, I would appreciate and welcome the opportunity to hear and then question him respectfully,” Ansari said. “But he is coming in June as the honored guest and being given the last word by the College … It says that we are an academic institution that celebrates and validates him and his policies.”

Commencement celebrates the graduating class, and some students believe that the selection of a controversial figure undermines what the event is supposed to represent. “I really wish the committee responsible for selecting Bloomberg considered a less culturally divisive figure,” Malik Nashad Sharpe ’14 said. “In a ceremony that provides little opportunity for active public dissent … it seems inconsiderate of the committee to choose a speaker who staunchly defends some extremely problematic public policies. Especially when some of those policies have directly and negatively affected people’s lives in our own community.”

Though inviting any politician to Commencement could draw mixed responses, controversies over Bloomberg’s policies make him a particularly contentious choice. “I want to distinguish this case from generic disputes over having a politician as a Commencement speaker. Any politician will have supporters and opponents, and there are plently of leaders who share Bloomberg’s particular brand of neoliberalism,” Reinhardt said. “But stop-and-frisk has a kind of physical intimacy and personal connection to the lived experiences of plenty of people in our community. I hope it’s offensive to most of us, but it doesn’t affect all of us, personally, in the same way. I think inviting Bloomberg undermines our claims to being an inclusive community in a way different from the inherent ideological divisiveness of having a politician as speaker.”

Opponents express that this decision is representative of a larger issue on campus: the College’s lack of concern of marginalized experiences. “As an institution that prides itself on claims of diversity and accepting students from underrepresented, and underprivileged backgrounds, [the choice of Commencement speaker] is such a slap in the face,” Remy Gates ’16 said. “As a student of color that attends this school due to financial aid, Questbridge and the Gates Millennium scholarship, to see [the College] invite Bloomberg as the official Commencement speaker … shows what Williams really thinks of the experiences of students like me, which isn’t much. I could have easily ended up as a victim of one of his policies.”

Gail Newman, faculty fellow of the Davis Center and Harold J. Henry professor of German, said, “[My disappointment to the decision] was because there are many people on campus for whom the invitation to Bloomberg is yet another example of a lack of acknowledgement at Williams of their lived experiences.” Newman adds that the fact that “others don’t think a thing of the invitation” exacerbates the disregard that people have felt.

Karen Swann, associate dean for institutional diversity and Herbert H. Lehman professor of English, shares similar sentiments. “[Bloomberg’s] speech is likely to be bland and uncontroversial,” she said. “The ‘controversy’ around his coming will thus be invisible to many in the audience, while others – including many faculty, staff and students who may already struggle with feeling welcome at Williams – will be hyper-aware of it.”

Looking Forward

According to Karen Kwitter, chair, Ebenezer Fitch professor of astronomy and new member of the Honorary Degrees Committee, at a recent Committee meeting, “there was discussion about reactions to his coming, and we are aware that it’s troubling to some members of the community.”

Jim Kolesar, vice president for public affairs, said, “There are no plans to change this year’s Commencement.”

Kwitter and Kolesar said that they could not share anything about the discussion to preserve confidentiality.

One fear surrounding the decision is that it damages much of the progress that the College has made to help provide an equitable experience to all members of the community.

Ansari said, “This decision is antithetical from the work of the College that I have been blessed to witness over my three years at Williams. It undermines all this work in one irresponsible, dismissive and offensive way to all the students, staff and faculty who sacrifice their time at making Williams a place free of discrimination and a hospitable community to all.”

Newman echoed similar sentiments. “I know that there are many, many individuals … who genuinely work toward making the actual fabric of the “Williams way” reflect the variety of identities embedded in our community. But the symbolism of a Commencement speaker can do a lot of damage to a fragile process of change,” she said.

Ansari suggests that the administration make Bloomberg the Baccalaureate speaker and Karen Armstrong, the current Baccalaureate speaker, the Commencement speaker. “I’m not asking for them to rescind the invitation. I have never asked for that. But I think a switching of the day would resolve this,” Ansari said. He adds, “It has never been done, but is morally the correct thing to do.” To him, the lack of action would symbolize the College’s “history of privilege creating more privilege.”

In light of this controversy, many hope that the College will reform the way in which the Honorable Degree Committee selects nominees.

“Whatever else happens, I am very much hoping that this experience will lead to changes in the way the College selects its honorary degree recipients,” Swann said. “My sense is that the College administration is very open to hearing from members of the community who have ideas about how the process can be made more open and inclusive in the future, and I hope our experience this year will help to effect changes in the process.”

 

  • ee

    Why buy into the false argument about reduction in crime? Civil liberties are inherently dangerous in some ways. Can you reduce crime by creating a dictatorship that is able to search any person, place or thing without cause or a warrant? Maybe… so?

    Where is his controversial position on gun control? It is one of his most divisive issues.

  • ee

    Graduates who want to protest should bring 2 liter soda’s to the commencement, and drink them openly during his speech. Fill them full of juice if you do not drink Soda.

    Minority students should form a line and stop and frisk volunteers at the entrance in a display of just how outrageously bankrupt this man’s American ideals are.

    This experience you are having is indicative of a culture that does a good job pretending to care about issues, practicing carefully crafted PR campaigns to support the schools vision- which is based on making a lot of money. The way in which Williams has become an enterprise has been destructive to the town. Not only does it monopolize any competitive advantage given by the large tax free enterprise, it treats the local community as landLORD. Such large intuitions that enjoy a relatively free ride should not be allowed to dominate an economy in such a way.

    This choice of speaker is an example of a very sinister attitude of wealth and entitlement. In some ways, it is good to see this pox on the house brought into the fold of the purple bubble, because it may spark a larger narrative of the schools vision and openly predatory and competitive business structure. Although, as it is with all things Williams- protection of the school will circumvent any viable discourse and mechanism for honest debate and change.

  • Dopply

    Diana, thanks for writing this. It’s well researched, and I appreciate all the work y’all did to reach out to faculty and students.

  • Bilal Ansari

    ^^^^Exactly my thoughts. Thank you, Diana for the careful, thoughtful and meaningful article, which brought in so many voices in such a purposeful way. It is very much appreciated.

  • Pingback: In echo-chamber world, students demand agreeable speakers | NewsCut | Minnesota Public Radio News()

  • howard

    for the record I would like to denote that Mayor Mike Bloomberg got his honorary degree from Williams without protest… there was much jaw slapping humor as the owner of gentrification and civil liberties abuses became an Eph following an astounding complimentary introduction given by the school.

    Williams lauded the historical impact Mayor Bloomberg. That is, the way it went down.