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Swarthmore commencement speaker cancels after online barbs

The former president of the World Bank withdraws as 2013 commencement speaker after critical comments sparked a debate.

The former president of the World Bank has withdrawn as one of Swarthmore College's three 2013 commencement speakers after critical comments sparked a debate in the campus media.

Robert Zoellick, a 1975 alumnus, also declined to receive an honorary degree, according to an announcement by Swarthmore's president, Rebecca Chopp.

"I don't want to disrupt what should be a special day for the graduates, their families, and friends. Nor do I have an interest in participating in an unnecessarily controversial event," Zoellick said, according to an e-mail Chopp sent to the college community on Friday.

Entrepreneur and humanitarian Tralance Addy, a 1969 graduate, and novelist and social activist Lorene Cary are scheduled to receive honorary degrees and speak. Commencement is scheduled for June 2, with about 350 undergraduates and their guests likely to attend.

Zoellick is a senior fellow at Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. He was the 11th president of the World Bank Group, nominated by President George W. Bush, and served from 2007 to 2012. He was also executive vice president of Fannie Mae and a senior international adviser to Goldman Sachs.

On a discussion forum hosted by the school newspaper, the Daily Gazette, a post from Will L. on March 26 referred to Zoellick's tenure at the World Bank, Fannie Mae, and Goldman Sachs and took issue with what he called Zoellick's "role in helping build an ideological foundation for the Iraq war. His whole career has been built on one morally dubious enterprise after another," Will L. posted.

Regarding Iraq, the writer was perhaps referring to Zoellick's association with the Project for the New American Century, a conservative think tank. In 1998, Zoellick was among the PNAC members who signed a letter urging President Bill Clinton to remove then-Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein from power because of an assumption that Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Donald Rumsfeld was also among the cosigners and later, as Bush's secretary of defense, led the invasion of Iraq.

Other students defended the choice of Zoellick, generally, with some pointing to the need for a college to have speakers with different points of view.

Chopp did not express disappointment with Zoellick's decision nor the debates that provoked it, but defended his experience with the World Bank. She said he understood how the global economy "can address not only poverty but also social equality and justice," and called him "a model for students who want to combine knowledge with service, ethics with outreach, and wisdom with a commitment to the wider world."

Chopp said the college "is very proud to claim him as an alumnus and stands by its decision to award him the honorary degree."

Read Chopp's full statement here.