Michigan State University Chooses Rape Apologist George Will As Commencement Speaker & Students Fight Back

Michigan State University selected conservative journalist and noted rape apologist George Will to speak at the university’s commencement ceremony on Saturday and to receive an honorary doctorate of humanities. Will, who taught at the university for a brief period in the 1970s, penned a horrific op-ed in June in which he suggested that women who come forward to report campus sexual assault receive “coveted status” and “privileges.” Students, sexual assault survivors and advocates are furious at Will’s appearance at the ceremony, especially since MSU is one of several schools undergoing a federal investigation for its handling of previous cases of campus assault. As of this writing, over 800 students plan to protest on campus Saturday morning and the numbers are growing by the minute.

MSU President Lou Anna Simon released a statement Tuesday defending the university’s decision to include Will and informing students that Will had been chosen before his infamous June column went to print. Simon insisted that he was selected to speak at the morning ceremony “in the spirit of recognizing diverse viewpoints” since filmmaker Michael Moore had been chosen to speak at the university’s afternoon ceremony, and that “George Will is not our first controversial speaker at MSU over the years, and he will undoubtedly not be our last.” The statement also included the following (emphasis mine):

“…Survivors are expressing dismay and distress that needs to be addressed…So what does it mean that Michigan State University invited George Will to speak?…Having George Will speak at commencement does not mean I or Michigan State University agree with or endorse the statements he made in his June 6 column or any particular column he has written. It does not mean the university wishes to cause survivors of sexual assault distress. And it does not mean we are backing away from our commitment to continuously improving our response to sexual assault. What it does mean is this: Great universities are committed to serving the public good by creating space for discourse and exchange of ideas, though that exchange may be uncomfortable and will sometimes challenge values and beliefs. There is no mandate to agree, only to serve society by allowing learning to take place. If universities do not hold onto this, we do not serve the greater good. Because next time it will be a different speaker and a different issue, and the dividing lines will not be the same. Holding this value in no way diminishes the value we place on student safety or our commitment to continue our efforts against sexual assault on this campus. We will continue to bring the issue into the light. Nothing changes that. As I wrote in my blog last week, MSU’s recently formed Sexual Assault Task Force had its first meeting in mid-November…Recognizing that George Will’s visit will be painful for many, the Task Force will convene a town hall meeting as early as possible next semester to allow members of the campus community to share thoughts following this weekend’s commencement, as well as to offer perspectives and approaches for addressing sexual assault and its impact on our community…”

Referring to Will’s ideology as merely “controversial” or “creating space for discourse” reads as dismissive to me. “Controversy” implies public debate or cause for argument. Choosing Will as a speaker doesn’t simply spark some kind of healthy public debate, it flat-out antagonizes people who’ve experienced trauma at the hands of sexual assault – on a day they’re meant to be proudly celebrating their college accomplishments with their families, no less. The insistence that choosing speakers like Will facilitates “learning to take place” is equally disturbing. Giving a platform to a man who suggests that assault survivors receive special privilege and who not-so-subtly implies that students lie about being raped is spreading dangerous ideas that put survivors, who have already been through so much, in even deeper peril. The choice to host Will seems even more like a slap in the face in light of the recent stampede of doubt and hate that descended on UVA student “Jackie” for entrusting Rolling Stone with her story of surviving a brutal gang rape, including attempts to expose her true identity. Her story makes Will’s assertions of any kind of “survivor privilege” on campus sound even more ludicrous than they already did. Oddly enough, Teresa Sullivan, UVA’s president, will be the third commencement speaker on Saturday alongside Will and Moore.

The university’s plans to host a town hall meeting are a good step forward, but an afterthought like that one is not enough. Full disclosure: many, many people I love are MSU students and alumni. The MSU I thought I knew is a school that cares deeply for its students – but the way to show that is by dismissing Will altogether, not skirting around the issue. A group of faculty members are putting together an alternative graduation ceremony for students who feel uncomfortable sitting through Will’s speech. Sociology professor Stephanie Nawyn, one of the organizers, summed up the situation best when she told the Lansing State Journal:

“I am concerned, as are other faculty, that bringing an individual to our campus that has publicly invalidated and dismissed the traumatic experiences that some of our graduates have had sends an inaccurate message to our students. Will is not just giving a speech; he is part of one of the biggest days of our graduates’ lives, and I want that day to include messages that the Spartan community respects and treasures all of our students.”

No person’s private trauma should be made fodder for public debate by journalists like Will. No student should feel unsafe at their own graduation. Students rallied on Wednesday and delivered petitions against Will’s speech, and MSU students Emily Jefferson and Emily Gillingham organized a protest to speak out even further this weekend. If you’re near MSU’s campus and want to help, join hundreds of others in Saturday morning’s protest and use the hashtag #ItsOnYouMSU to spread the word.

[Detroit News]

[Image via Getty]