Members of the MIT administration working with student groups have planned several events to air views critical of World Bank economic policies before James D. Wolfensohn, president of the World Bank, ascends the podium to deliver this year's Commencement address June 7.
"Serious questions have been raised by scholars and researchers about whether the World Bank is promoting or preventing justice and dignity for all human beings," said Rev. Amy McCreath, the Episcopal Chaplain at MIT and coordinator of the Technology and Culture Forum.
"This isn't just an academic issue for students, staff or faculty who either grew up or spent significant time working in developing nations. They've watched the dams being built in their districts. They've seen who gets to sit at the decision-making table and who doesn't," McCreath said.
The Technology and Culture Forum worked with students and faculty to present a forum on the World Bank, to be held May 28, for the entire MIT community.
One student group, Students for a Democratic Commencement, working with the administration, has organized events for June 6. These include a screening of "Life and Debt," a film that portrays the lives of individual Jamaicans affected by foreign economic powers, a discussion of the movie led by its director, and a concert by Grammy award-winning reggae artist, Yami Bolo. These events will be held in Room 54-100.
"MIT has the reputation of being an open campus and we were pleased to see this was adhered to," said Julia K. Steinberger, a graduate student in physics and member of the Students for a Democratic Commencement.
On Commencement day, MIT students and Wolfensohn will participate in a closed discussion jointly produced by Kirk D. Kolenbrander, special assistant to the president and chancellor, and a student organizing committee.
Kolenbrander saw tremendous potential for mutual respect and communication in the innovative plan for a meeting and discussion with Wolfensohn.
"I hope the meeting will provide Mr. Wolfensohn a thoughtful and honest dialogue with a number of our committed students. With this conversation, our community will affirm the importance of engaging in tolerant discussions on issues about which there is strong disagreement," Kolenbrander said.
The students working with Kolenbrander to organize the June 7 meeting are Jesse M. Barnes, a senior in biology; Arjun Mendiratta, a graduate student in chemistry; Payal P. Parekh, a graduate student in earth, atmospheric and planetary studies; Abigail S. Popp, a senior in civil and environmental engineering; and Stephanie W. Wang, a sophomore in management.
Kwabena Amankwah-Ayeh, assistant to Wolfsensohn at the World Bank, heartily endorsed the MIT plan.
Amankwah-Ayeh noted opportunities for students to "listen, first hand, to Mr. Wolfensohn's views and passion about development and poverty reduction; to dialogue on his leadership of the World Bank and his willingness (or failure, as seen by students) to champion the cause of the very poor people around the world."
Amankwah-Ayeh also described the unusual meeting as an opportunity for Wolfensohn to gather "students' opinions on the development agenda and suggestions of alternative ways development needs to be done."
Chancellor Philip Clay will moderate the closed discussion with Wolfensohn. Twenty MIT students will be chosen by lottery to participate. The lottery will take place on Thursday, May 23, in the Student Center.
McCreath, looking beyond Commencement 2002, offered a vision of where all the organizing, all the pre-graduation activies, might lead.
"Public discourse about powerful institutions is always valuable, especially when those institutions employ and deploy technologies with such broad impact. My hope is that those who participate will leave with a better understanding of the history and stated mission of the World Bank and a deeper understanding of the impact of its work.
"In the short term, this will give them food for thought and analysis as they listen to the speaker at Commencement. But more importantly, in the long term, my hope is that it raises new questions for them about the global relationship between wealth and poverty, the costs and benefits of development, and helps shape the kind of research and leadership they commit themselves to as scientists, engineers, economists and policy-makers," McCreath said.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 22, 2002.