Under Fire, Michigan State President Defends Honoring George Will

George Will -- MSU

Michigan State University's president has published a 900-word defense of the school's decision to host George Will as a commencement speaker this weekend in response to widespread outrage from students who object to his past remarks on campus sexual assault.

President Lou Anna K. Simon stated that the university did not endorse Will's controversial June 6 Washington Post syndicated column suggesting that attempts to curb campus assaults have made “victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges.” She wrote in part:

I'll leave it to Mr. Will to defend his comments and values, because this isn't about George Will. This is about us. And it is about the role of universities in a democratic society.

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.

Contrary to Simon's suggestion, Will is not participating in an open “exchange of ideas” in which students can engage with or question his remarks. Instead, his December 13 address will reportedly be a commencement speech to graduates from several MSU programs, who will have the option of either listening to his remarks or skipping their own graduations. Moreover, the “ideas” critics are objecting to are Will's comments about his audience, college students.

Additionally, the Post columnist will not only be addressing students but will be celebrated by the school, receiving an honorary doctorate for what Simon terms his “long and distinguished journalistic career.”

Emily Gillingham, an MSU law school student and co-organizer of a protest against Will's involvement, highlighted the destructive nature of Will's participation, telling Media Matters last week,“I feel so bad for the people who are there who have survived sexual assault who George Will thinks are lying or it was some sort of pleasant experience.”

Simon's statement comes in response to substantial criticism from the student body. More than 700 have already signed up for a protest the day of the speech, and MSU's Council of Graduate Students has passed a resolution calling on the administration to withdraw their invitation to Will.