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Impolite Leadership

Tufts Alumni Association should not have rescinded award after alleged obscenity

By The CRIMSON Staff

Several weeks ago, Tufts University senior Elizabeth E. Monnin was privately notified that she was to be awarded one of 12 annual Senior Awards for leadership and academic achievement from the Tufts Alumni Association. But on Friday, the Tufts Daily revealed that the award had been rescinded—the first such revocation in the Senior Awards’ 46-year history. What horrific secret came to light in the time between the two events?

The answer, it seems, involves former U.S. President George H.W. Bush’s February speech at Tufts. A group including Monnin protested his speech, and the protestors’ behavior—which allegedly included shouting over Bush and making lewd gestures—was deemed “not consistent with the traditional Tufts courtesy” by Alumni Association officials. On the basis of the protest and the accusation that she made a rude gesture towards former President Bush, Monnin’s not-yet-awarded award was pre-emptively revoked.

The withdrawal of the award is highly questionable. Monnin denies that she made any obscene motion, and the Tufts’ Alumni Association should have not acted decisively on the word of one or more informants whose identities are still unclear. At the very least, one would expect the Alumni Association to conduct some sort of investigation before taking away this honor, but none was reported by the Tufts Daily. Instead, a student being recognized for skills as a leader has been summarily taken for a bald-faced liar.

But even if she did make the lewd gesture, Tufts’ Alumni Association is still not off the hook for withdrawing the award. Its rather difficult to take seriously the claim of the Alumni Association that they were unaware of Monnin’s history of transgressive and brash methods of making her voice heard given the prominence of that history. Three years ago, Monnin was involved in the controversial student takeover of a University building; “I don’t try to hide my actions,” she told the Tufts Daily when asked about her aggressively activist style.

And frankly, there is little to hide about this particular alleged action. The apparent implication of the revocation—that leaders, trailblazers, must adhere to the finest points of social politesse in their quests for justice and truth—would be laughable were it not so suffocating. In fact, a certain challenge to received wisdom, a commitment to doing that which the establishment rejects as rude, is inherent in the leadership that the Tufts Alumni Association purports to recognize.

Of course, it would be stretching the situation somewhat thin to call Monnin’s alleged gesture heroic, or even particularly meaningful. A juvenile pantomime is not the most admirable blow for the forces of democracy, and those who call the incident valuable “dissent” overstate their case. But barnyard gesticulations—especially those denied by the party accused of making them—are no grounds for the rescinding of a leadership award. Etiquette is not leadership, and the Alumni Association would do well to consider whether it wishes to recognize those adult skills possessed by leaders—charisma, boldness, conviction—or the neatly-folded hands of docile children.

Dissent: An Unworthy Role Model

The Crimson Staff is entirely correct when it says that etiquette is not leadership. But it is ludicrously off-base in suggesting that not making a lewd gesture at a public event is “one of the finest points of social politesse.” Demonstrating a lack of common decency is not the same as carrying out valuable social protest. Publicly showing opposition to George H.W. Bush is understandable, and maybe even laudable. But making lewd gestures at him is not courageous—it is infantile. If Elizabeth Monnin cannot understand this, she should be receiving a lecture on the nature of leadership, not a reward for practicing it. And it seems The Staff would benefit from joining her tutorial.

—Anthony S.A.Freinberg ’04

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