Write-In: “Commencement 2018: Lemony Snicket, Anita Hill, and Silencing Women of Color in the Age of #MeToo”

On February 15th, President Roth emailed an announcement of this year’s commencement speakers and Honorary Degree Recipients. The 186th Commencement Address will be delivered by Daniel Handler ’92, also known under his pen name Lemony Snicket. Fellow degree recipients are Anita Hill, Professor of Social Policy, Law, and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Brandeis University, and Joshua Boger ’73, scientist and chair emeritus of the Wesleyan Board of Trustees. Commencement will be Sunday, May 27, 2018.

The decision has sparked conversation among students, both in light of Handler’s past controversial remarks and the ongoing #MeToo movement, for which Anita Hill laid the foundation when, in 1991, she testified against Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court nomination on the basis of sexual harassment. Sarah Chen Small ’18 has written in with a response to the commencement decisions, which you view below along with President Roth’s original announcement email:

Commencement 2018: Lemony Snicket, Anita Hill, and Silencing Women of Color in the Age of #MeToo

When is the best time to feature a white male speaker with a history of racism and harassment while a legendary female survivor and advocate of color is silenced? In the middle of the #MeToo movement at a “liberal” university apparently.

President Roth emailed the student body on February 15th to inform us that our 2018 commencement honorary doctorates will be Daniel Handler (better known as children’s author Lemony Snicket), Anita Hill (Professor of Law, prolific author, and sexual harassment victim advocate), and Joshua Boger (pharmaceutical CEO and trustee). Daniel Handler will deliver the commencement address.

Anita Hill is of course famous for speaking out about Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s sexual harassment during his confirmation hearings. She was vilified and denigrated as so many victims of color were and still are. Anita Hill spoke out at a time when workplace harassment was even more normalized and accepted than it is today, and she did so in opposition to a Supreme Court Justice nominee and many high ranking government officials (including Joe Biden who presided over the panel that spent weeks publicly attacking Hill). In many ways, she began the #MeToo movement in the 1990’s.

But Anita Hill will not deliver our commencement address. Instead the honor goes to Daniel Handler/Lemony Snicket. He is best known for writing the dark children’s series A Series of Unfortunate Events. He is also well known for having made a racist joke about a black author being allergic to watermelon in 2014. Handler was supposed to be announcing Jacqueline Woodson who had just won a prize for her memoir “Black Girl Dreaming,” but instead took the moment to drag up an age-old racist stereotype. He later apologized and donated money to the “We Need Diverse Books” campaign.

Although largely unpublicized, Daniel Handler has been accused of a range of inappropriate behavior towards female authors and audience members, including children. On her blog, YA genre author Gwenda Bond began a pledge for “kidlit” authors to join the #MeToo movement in their industry. Daniel Handler digitally signed it. What followed was an outpouring of stories wherein Handler made inappropriate sexual remarks to a litany of female authors, often in front of children at his events. By definition, this is sexual harassment. Handler has largely not responded to these remarks. This behavior is particularly troubling because Handler writes for children and wrote a book All the Dirty Parts that is about an adolescent boy’s sexual fantasies. Handler claims that sex is too often censored from children’s literature, yet his depictions of sex and in-person sexual remarks are often sexist and violent. Handler masquerades his sexism as edginess and sex positivity.

Beyond the accusations against Daniel Handler, beyond his apology (and money) and whether it makes up for a disgusting racist remark, he is less qualified to deliver the 2018 commencement address than Anita Hill. He will deliver the remarks in short because he is a rich, famous, white, male alum who Roth counts on bringing in money and attention. Anita Hill is perfectly positioned to discuss the unique challenges that face the Class of 2018 as we graduate into a Trump presidency. She is an accomplished speaker, professor, author, and advocate. Lemony Snicket wrote some dark kids’ books. What’s that old adage about having to be twice as good to get half as far?

Anita Hill will not be our commencement speaker. Regardless of the more than 1.7 million tweets of #MeToo, regardless of the horrifyingly-well known attacks of Hollywood executives, regardless of the 20 women who have accused the sitting President of the United States of sexual assault, regardless of the 150 brave women and girls who spoke about their serial abuse as children by a USA Gymnastics doctor, regardless of all the pain and work and trauma survivors have dredged up to try to make ourselves heard this year, Anita Hill will not be our speaker. This is why I and so many women were wary of the flippant pronouncements that #MeToo is a new era, a reckoning, or an end to harassment.

I am glad that we are discussing the epidemic of sexual assault and harassment, but I am very aware that this labor is being done by survivors, particularly women of color and trans women. The majority of the men in my life have done nothing to engage with these issues past a retweet or a like on Facebook of something I wrote. Roth is no different. He has some nice soundbites about equality and fairness and then returns to protecting faculty accused of sexual harassment. Even a simple action, appointing a reasonable speaker, seems to be too great a challenge for Roth’s administration.

I am proud of Anita Hill. We should all aspire to be as brave as Anita Hill, now more than ever, and to speak truth to power. I ask President Roth to think carefully about the message he is sending to his students and to survivors everywhere– that an underqualified, problematic white man is more valued than a hyper-qualified, trailblazing woman of color. And I ask the student body to do what we do best: make ourselves heard.

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President Roth’s email is as follows:

Dear friends,

Wesleyan will present three honorary doctorates at the University’s 186th Commencement on May 27, 2018. Our much-admired alumnus and writer Daniel Handler ’92 will deliver the Commencement address. Wesleyan will also honor Anita Hill, who for decades has fought against discrimination and sexual harassment in the workplace, and Joshua Boger ’73, P’06, ’09, founder of Vertex Pharmaceuticals and chair emeritus of Wesleyan’s board of trustees.

Daniel Handler ’92

Daniel Handler is known worldwide for his series of children’s books, A Series of Unfortunate Events and All the Wrong Questions, published under his famous pen name, Lemony Snicket. Prominent on Lemony Snicket’s website is this text: “Warning: Do Not Enter; This Site is Very Unpleasant.”

Nothing could be more enticing, of course, and his books, which do not sugarcoat difficult topics, have sold more than 70 million copies and have been translated into 40 languages. A Series of Unfortunate Events (also adapted for film and television) consists of 13 novels about the three orphaned Baudelaire children. The stories, according to the website, “are unhappy and wretched and will most likely fill you with deep despair,” but the orphans—happily for readers—are “kind-hearted and quick witted.” All the Wrong Questions is a four-part mystery series described as a set of prequels to A Series of Unfortunate Events that explore Lemony Snicket’s childhood apprenticeship to a secret society.

Mr. Handler has published seven novels under his own name. The most recent, All the Dirty Parts, is a coming-of-age story that focuses on the sexual life and fantasies of a teenage boy.

During his senior year at Wesleyan, Mr. Handler was awarded the 1992 Connecticut Student Poet Prize. He has returned to campus for WESeminars and to participate in the Writing Program and currently serves as a judge of submissions for Wesleyan’s Hamilton Prize for Creativity. He is married to Lisa Brown ’93, a celebrated author and illustrator who has collaborated with him on several happy occasions.

Anita Hill

Anita Hill is University Professor of Social Policy, Law, and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Brandeis University and a faculty member of the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis.

In 1991, her name became indelibly stamped on the national consciousness when she accused Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment while he was her supervisor. Her courage in speaking out and her dignity in the face of vituperative attacks remain inspirational, and over the years she has provided frequent commentary in the national media on gender and race issues. She recently was selected to head the Commission on Sexual Harassment and Advancing Equality in the Workplace, intended to address sexual abuse and harassment in the media and entertainment industries. She also served as chair of the Human Rights Committee of the International Bar Association.

Ms. Hill is a scholar of contract jurisprudence, commercial law, and education policy. She is a prolific author, publishing numerous law review articles, essays, editorials, and books. Her most recent book, focused on housing and the 2008 foreclosure crisis, is Reimagining Equality: Stories of Gender, Race, and Finding Home.

She previously co-edited Race, Gender, and Power in America: The Legacy of the Hill-Thomas Hearings with Emma Coleman Jordan. In 1997 she published her autobiography, Speaking Truth to Power, in which she discusses her role in the confirmation hearings.

Among her many honors, she received the UC Merced Alice and Clifford Spendlove Prize in Social Justice, Diplomacy and Tolerance in 2016 and the Ford Hall Forum First Amendment Award in 2008. She holds a BS degree from Oklahoma State University and a JD from Yale University.

Joshua Boger ’73, P’06, ’09

Joshua Boger is an outstanding scientist whose vision transcends the lab. As the founder and former chief executive officer of Vertex Pharmaceuticals, he led the discovery and development of new pharmaceuticals for treating some of medicine’s most daunting challenges, including HIV, hepatitis C infection, and cystic fibrosis.  At Wesleyan, where he served as chair of the board of trustees, he helped ensure the success of Wesleyan’s $482 million THIS IS WHY campaign and consistently urged the board to anticipate challenges years ahead. He continues to contribute his skills and wisdom to various scientific, cultural, educational, and political ventures.

Dr. Boger is the author of over 50 scientific publications, holds 32 U.S. patents in pharmaceutical discovery and development, and has delivered over 100 invited lectures—in the United States, in Europe, and in Asia—on various aspects of drug discovery and development. Prior to founding Vertex in 1989, he headed the departments of Biophysical Chemistry and Medicinal Chemistry of Immunology & Inflammation at Merck Sharp & Dohme Research Laboratories. He holds masters and doctoral degrees in chemistry from Harvard University.

Currently, he is chair of the campaign for Massachusetts gubernatorial candidate Setti Warren, vice chair of Boston’s Museum of Science, chair of the board of the Celebrity Series (Boston’s premier performing arts presenter) and chair of the fundraising campaign for Harvard Medical School, where he is chair emeritus.  Among many other present and former volunteer activities, he was the founding chair of the board of the nonprofit MassChallenge (the world’s largest start-up business incubator), and, while a member of the board of the ACLU of Massachusetts Foundation, co-founded their ongoing Technology for Liberty and Justice for AllProjects.

A list of past honorary degree recipients and Commencement speakers is available here. We welcome suggestions for future recipients of honorary degrees. Please contact presoffice@wesleyan.edu.

Michael S. Roth

President