College retracts invitation to scheduled Commencement speaker
Nicole Caratas | Friday, April 7, 2017
Activist and author Jean Kilbourne spoke out last week after Saint Mary’s rescinded her invitation to speak during the College’s 2017 Commencement ceremony. The College withdrew its offer once it became aware that Kilbourne had received the Hilda Crosby Standish Leadership Award from Planned Parenthood of Connecticut in 2005, Kara Kelly, special assistant to the president of Saint Mary’s, said in an email.
According to Kelly, no contract had been signed before the decision to rescind the offer was made. The College has since continued with Commencement planning and will announce the speaker later this month.
Kelly said the President’s Office accepts nominees for Commencement speakers. Those candidates are then reviewed by the Student Affairs Council and are approved by the Board of Trustees, which has the final say in the decision.
“There is a difference in a department or student group inviting someone to speak on campus, versus inviting a Commencement speaker,” Kelly said. “Commencement speakers at Saint Mary’s also receive an honorary degree, the College’s highest honor, subject to approval from the Board of Trustees.”
Kilbourne said she has spoken at over 50 Catholic colleges and universities in the U.S. and Canada without her award ever presenting an issue.
“I’ve spoken to Saint Mary’s in the past,” she said. “I’ve always had a wonderful time. I’ve spoken at Notre Dame.”
Although the College extends an invitation to multiple speakers — as scheduling conflicts sometimes occur and a new speaker needs to be selected quickly — Kilbourne said she was not aware of this and thought she would be speaking, as she had accepted the initial offer.
“That certainly wasn’t my understanding,” she said. “I received an offer, a contract was drawn up. It had not been signed, but it was in the works. In fact, I turned down another engagement for that day. … As far as I knew and understood, this was an offer for me to be the Commencement speaker, and it was then withdrawn for this reason.”
Kilbourne said after her invitation was rescinded, she was told that an alumna or alumnae had found out about her award and put pressure on the College.
“I’m sympathetic to the position that Saint Mary’s was put in,” she said. “I just feel like this was really too bad. It’s too bad it’s happening here, and it’s happening other places as well.”
Kilbourne said she has no resentment toward the College, but rather is disappointed with the decision that was made.
“It makes me sad, it makes me disappointed,” she said. “I really had some important things to say. I’m a graduate of Wellesley College — an all women’s college. I’m very supportive of women’s colleges, so I really had looked forward to speaking to the young women of Saint Mary’s. I was honored by the invitation, and I was looking forward to it.”
Kilbourne said this situation is indicative of the times, as many campuses across the country have barred people from speaking because of political issues.
“It’s very disturbing, the increasing divisiveness,” she said. “I’m a uniter, I’m not a divider. I really have always tried to bring people together on difficult issues. … This is happening from the left and the right, people being disinvited to campuses because they don’t meet certain tests. I think this is dangerous for education.”
Kilbourne said she was not planning on speaking about Planned Parenthood, abortion or even reproductive rights in her speech.
“I was going to speak about what I speak about, which is the influence of advertising on all of [us] and trying to help the young women, in particular, to resist the negative images of women in advertising.”
Kelly said College departments and student groups go through a different process of bringing speakers to campus than the process used in selecting the Commencement speaker, due to the speaker’s additional honor of receiving an honorary degree at Commencement.
“As an educational principle, Saint Mary’s encourages the free and vibrant exchange of ideas, and grants campus groups considerable freedom in determining the speakers who best contribute to a challenging and stimulating academic atmosphere,” Kelly said.