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Dissent: A Regrettable Choice

The selection of Michael Bloomberg as Commencement speaker is ill-advised

By John A Griffin, Idrees M. Kahloon, and Daniel J. Solomon

Michael R. Bloomberg will deliver the keynote speech at Harvard’s 363rd Commencement Exercises this May. Breaking the news last week, University President Drew Faust was effusive in her praise of the former New York City mayor, celebrating his commitment to activism, philanthropy, and public service. Yet Faust’s enthusiasm is not shared by many members of the Harvard community, who say Bloomberg’s selection is an insult to students of color. In large measure, we agree with them. We believe that the purpose of Commencement is to recognize the graduating class, and that any speaker who alienates vast portions of the student body undermines that goal.

Under the Bloomberg administration, “stop-and-frisk” became common practice at the New York Police Department. The policy, which allows officers to stop, question, and search pedestrians if there is “reasonable” suspicion that a crime is being committed, took on a distinctly racial hue: In a city of eight million people, the practice was employed 685,724 times in 2011, and almost 90 percent of those detained were black or Hispanic. Bloomberg and Ray W. Kelly, New York’s ex-police commissioner, claim stop-and-frisk reduces crime, but the evidence is sparse. In 2011, 88 percent of stops yielded neither a ticket nor an arrest. Even as the number of stops ballooned by 600 percent from 2001 to 2011, the number of shooting incidents remained constant. Indeed, a mere 0.2 percent of stops turned up firearms. There is no justification—moral or pragmatic—for such a policy.

Admittedly, Harvard has invited controversial figures to address graduates in the past. Last year’s pick, Oprah Winfrey, raised hackles from community members for her promotion of pseudoscience and pop medicine. But Bloomberg presents an entirely different dilemma: While she may have stretched the facts, Winfrey never presided over a policing regime that humiliated tens of thousands of people. Bloomberg is a complex figure, with a checkered history on issues of race and minority outreach, but the negative reaction to his selection has, understandably, been intensely personal.

Muslim students have protested the decision, citing the NYPD’s intrusive surveillance of mosques, ostensibly done as part of its counter-terrorism strategy. Many black and Latino students have also objected, saying the choice trivializes their encounters with racial discrimination and oppression. For some, the Bloomberg announcement exacerbates the sense of social exclusion expressed by the “I, Too, Am Harvard” campaign. This alienation alone is reason enough to regret the choice. The University’s defenders may argue that this is a case of hypersensitivity. But our lived experiences inform our emotions. No one has the right to tell someone else whether to be offended or not.

Had Bloomberg been asked to the Institute of Politics, we would have urged our classmates to engage in a respectful dialogue with the former mayor, and to challenge him on his record. But Commencement is not a night at the JFK Jr. Forum—every graduate should feel celebrated and included. We realize that no speaker will be acceptable to every single graduate, but to extend an invitation to someone who alienates entire segments of the student body is ill-advised and worthy of condemnation. This May, the Class of 2014 will gather to mark four years of growth and accomplishment. We only wish the choice of commencement speaker had reflected such unity.

John A. Griffin, a Crimson editorial executive, is a history and literature concentrator in Lowell House. Idrees. M. Kahloon, a Crimson editorial executive, is an applied mathematics concentrator in Dunster House. Daniel J. Solomon, a Crimson editorial executive, is a social studies concentrator in Pforzheimer House.

EDITORS' NOTE: Occasionally, The Crimson Staff is divided about an opinion we express in a staff editorial. In these cases, dissenting staff members have the opportunity to express their opposition to staff opinion.

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