Despite a week of controversy, the Yale School of Public Health will not be withdrawing its invitation to the head of the nation’s largest breast cancer charity to speak in this year’s Commencement.
The school’s invitation to founder and CEO of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, Nancy Brinker, came into question this week amid growing concern from faculty, students and staff owing to recent uproar over her foundation’s announcement last Wednesday that it would no longer provide funding for Planned Parenthood — a decision that has since been reversed. But SPH Dean Paul Cleary announced Monday afternoon that he will not withdraw Brinker’s invitation. Some students, however, have vowed to keep pushing for a different Commencement speaker.
“Yale cannot allow the threat of disruption or the possibility of distasteful content or an objectionable speaker to constitute grounds for canceling an invited speaker,” Cleary said a Monday press release. “I support this policy — it is essential to the academic mission that we all embrace.”
Cleary told the News that in making his decision he considered the opinions of students, faculty and alumni. He also asked other University officials for guidance and considered Yale Corporation guidelines, he added, ultimately deciding not to withdraw the invitation to Brinker, which was made in October, because doing so “felt inappropriate.”
He added that he personally disapproved of the foundation’s initial decision not to provide funding to Planned Parenthood — a nonprofit organization that provides reproductive, maternal and child health services, including abortion — but that inviting Brinker to speak at SPH’s Commencement does not imply that the school endorses the decision.
One of his concerns, Cleary said, was freedom of expression, and having Brinker as a speaker would assure that this freedom is maintained. He added that in order to encourage debate and exchange ideas, the School of Public Health will be holding public meetings for students and staff where he hopes “the anger and frustration” over Brinker’s invitation will be released. The first meeting will take place this Wednesday at noon in Winslow Auditorium at 60 College St.
Still, concerns persist over Brinker’s expected involvement at commencement. A group of 20 SPH students began a petition to rescind the Brinker’s invitation. According to one of the group’s organizers, Christine Dang-Vu SPH ’12, the list has now grown to 80 students — about 50 percent of SPH’s graduating class.
Connor Essick SPH ’12, a signatory of the petition, said Komen’s ultimate backtracking on its Planned Parenthood announcement does not change his stance on her invitation. He said he would still prefer that Brinker not serve as this year’s Commencement speaker because the political convtroversy surrounding her foundation would now detract from the event itself.
In response to this concern, Cleary said the situation “is unfortunate, and it pains me, but on the other hand, if we cancelled the invitation the focus would be on Yale,” so avoiding controversy would be impossible.
Stephanie Platis SPH ’12, another signatory of the petition, said she believes Brinker is an inappropriate choice for Commencement speaker because she allowed Komen to make its orginal decision to cut funding for an organization that provides abortions. Despite Brinker’s achievements in breast cancer advocacy, Platis said, Komen’s now-reversed stance reflects the foundation’s focus on “political over public health concerns.”
Vanessa Lamers SPH ’13 said she thought a Commencement speaker should be someone students look up to as a role model. Brinker, through her organization’s actions, “cannot be seen as a role model anymore,” she said. There should be other venues to invite Brinker for open discussions, she added, but the Commencement stage is not one of them.
Platis said that she is disappointed with Cleary’s decision, but applauds his willingness to consider student voices. She added that the petition’s signatories will continue to press SPH to rescind its invitation to Brinker, including at Wednesday’s public meeting.
Lamers said that she believes having Brinker as a speaker will “tarnish the school’s reputation,” while by rescinding the invitation Yale will show that it is “a strong school capable of making radical decisions.”
“We should not have people speaking at Yale University that do not stand for the ideals and values that we believe in,” Lamers said.
Melinda Irwin, an associate SPH professor and co-leader of the school’s Cancer Prevention and Control Research Program, said in an email that she has had a “great relationship” with the Komen Foundation. Her first research application focusing on breast cancer was funded by the foundation in 2003, she said, setting her up to receive two large grants — a difficult process for a junior professor.
Irwin declined to comment on Brinker’s Commencement invitation, but added that she is pleased that the Komen Foundation reversed its move to eliminate Planned Parenthood funding.
Past SPH Commencement speakers have included public health officials such as U.S. Assistant Secretary of Health Howard Koh ’73 MED ’77 and Margaret Hamburg, the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration.