Michigan State University's decision to host George Will as a commencement speaker this weekend is sparking angry opposition from students, a prominent women's equality group, and campus sexual assault advocates who plan to protest the event because of Will's past comments about campus sexual assault.
In June, Will authored a Washington Post syndicated column suggesting that attempts to curb campus assaults have made “victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges.”
Will's column sparked widespread criticism. Four senators publicly condemned his comments in an open letter, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch dropped his syndicated column and apologized for publishing his “offensive and inaccurate” arguments, and women's equality groups called for the Washington Post to fire him.
Last week, The Detroit News reported that Will had been tapped as a commencement speaker for Michigan State University's December 13 graduation ceremonies and would receive an honorary doctorate of humanities. The announcement quickly prompted condemnation from the prominent women's equality group UltraViolet, whose co-founder Shaunna Thomas told Media Matters that Will's “continued attacks on campus rape survivors make him an unfit speaker for any University.”
MSU, which is currently under federal investigation for its handling of sexual assault accusations, defended their decision to honor Will. A spokesman told Media Matters, “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.”
But pressure is mounting on the University as Will's planned speech draws closer.
In a press release, UltraViolet announced it had gathered more than 40,000 signatures on a petition calling for the cancelation of Will's speech, which the group plans to deliver on December 10.
Students are also calling foul, with more than 650 already signed up for a protest the morning of Will's speech.
“The hope was that the administration would realize this is a bonehead move and choose someone else,” said Emily Gillingham, an MSU law school student and co-organizer of a protest set for 8 a.m. Saturday, right before Will's 10 a.m. address to graduates of several MSU colleges. “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.”
MSU's Council of Graduate Students passed a resolution Sunday calling on the administration to withdraw their invitation to Will. Some students and faculty are discussing plans for an alternate commencement.
“It's really disappointing that MSU chose to invite him, it appears that they knew it would be disappointing because they waited to announce it,” said Jessica Kane, an MSU graduate student who works in the campus Sexual Assault Center. “George Will's manner of approaching sexual assault is dismissive to all sexual assault survivors. Basically he calls them all potential liars. The fact that he approached sexual assault with such a callous attitude is really alarming.”
Emily Kollaritsch, a senior who says she was sexually assaulted twice during her time on campus, told Media Matters, “This is a huge step backwards, a huge slap in the face to every advocate survivor and ally who have worked alongside survivors to create a better campus because the administration is not doing that so it is falling on the hands of the students to create change.”
Tamra Frei, a volunteer at East Lansing Hollaback -- a local anti-harassment group in East Lansing, where MSU is located -- said Will's views show he has a “lack of awareness.”
“The comment that you achieve some sort of status just shows really a lack of awareness of what that does to someone,” said Frei, also an MSU graduate student and an intern in the campus Sexual Assault Program. She described reaction on campus to Will's appearance as: “Outrage, disbelief.”
Katlynn Kretz, a freshman and Sexual Assault Crisis Intervention Team volunteer, agreed.
“When reading through his article he likes to talk about the idea of how victimization has become something that he thinks is privilege, because it gives students and people something to cling to as an identity,” she said. “I feel like, through working with victims, a lot of times it is the opposite case, they don't want to be a victim, they don't want to be labeled with being sexually assaulted or raped.”
Kretz said allowing Will to speak on campus “gives everything that he has said an okay. And that ultimately we are just ignoring the elephant in the room.”
In November, Scripps College of Claremont, Ca. canceled a planned appearance by Will. College president Lori Bettison-Varga explained in a statement that the school had decided not to finalize the speaking agreement after Will had questioned “the validity of a specific sexual assault case that reflects similar experiences reported by Scripps students.” According to Bettison-Varga, “Sexual assault is not a conservative or liberal issue. And it is too important to be trivialized in a political debate or wrapped into a celebrity controversy.”
Will appeared at Miami University's Farmer School of Business in Oxford, Ohio, for its annual Anderson Lecture Series on October 22. He defended his column on campus rape during a Q and A at the event, which was reportedly protested by hundreds of students. He was paid $48,000, according to the university.
An MSU spokesman declined to reveal how much Will is being paid for his appearance, saying such information must be formally sought through an official Freedom of Information Act request.