In response to questions from Media Matters about whether the university had considered Will's comments on sexual assault before deciding to honor him, MSU spokesman Jason Cody said in a statement that Will was selected in recognition of his “long and distinguished career as a nationally recognized journalist” rather than “in reference to any individual viewpoint.” He added: “In any diverse community there are sure to be differences of opinion and perspective; something we celebrate as a learning community. We appreciate all views, and we hope and expect the MSU community will give the speaker the same respect.”
MSU's decision to honor Will is already drawing criticism from a prominent women's rights group. “George Will's continued attacks on campus rape survivors make him an unfit speaker for any University,” said Shaunna Thomas, co-founder of UltraViolet. “George Will may have a right to publicly speak out against survivors of sexual violence, but schools like Michigan State University should know better than to honor Will's dangerous views with honorary degrees and a speaking gig at commencement.”
Conservative columnist George Will is scheduled to speak at Michigan State University this month during graduation ceremonies, despite ongoing controversy surrounding his past comments on campus sexual assault.
The Detroit News reported that Will is scheduled to be a commencement speaker at the December 13 ceremony, and will receive “an honorary doctorate of humanities.”
Will's previous speaking engagements at universities have come under fire after he published a syndicated column in June disputing the evidence that 1 in 5 women on U.S college campuses experience sexual assault, while arguing that efforts to fight sexual assault have made “victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges.” His remarks received widespread criticism from U.S. senators, media, and women's equality groups.
In October, Scripps College of Claremont, Ca. canceled an appearance by Will, with college president Lori Bettison-Varga explaining in a statement that because Will had questioned “the validity of a specific sexual assault case that reflects similar experiences reported by Scripps students,” they would not move forward with the speaking arrangement.
Hundreds protested another Will appearance, at Miami University of Ohio in October. Nearly 1,200 students, faculty, and staff signed a letter stating that hosting Will “sends the wrong message to current students, prospective students, and their families about the tolerance of rape culture and predatory sexual behavior at Miami University,” according to the Miami University Women's Center. The speech also drew criticism from professors at the school's Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies program and the national women's rights group UltraViolet.
At that speech, a student who identified herself as a sexual assault survivor told journalists that Will claimed treatment for victims was “worth it ... only for real survivors of real rape.”
Michigan State University is currently under federal investigation for its handling of sexual assault accusations. On December 1, MSU's president posted a note about the school's efforts to combat sexual assault on campus, including “frank conversations and open dialog” to build a “culture of respect” (emphasis added):
As I said in my September 2 letter to the campus community, sexual assault is a serious problem on American college campuses, and ours is no exception. It will take leadership from all quarters to create the change necessary. I commend our students for the way they have stepped forward. Featured below is a video created by Associated Students of Michigan State University (ASMSU) as part of the national It's On Us campaign. And earlier this year, a group of eight current and recently graduated students released a documentary film, “Every Two Minutes,” with a powerful message about the impact of sexual assault. This kind of work encourages frank conversations and open dialog, while at the same time building a culture of respect and concern for one another.
I encourage all members of the Spartan community to watch these videos. But I ask you to do more. Take it upon yourself to address this issue in whatever way you can. Sexual assault is everyone's problem, and it's on all of us to take action, whether that means protecting a fellow Spartan from sexual violence, providing support to a survivor, or raising awareness on campus or in your home. Members of the MSU community must not be passive.
Image via Miami University's Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies program.