This May, Tufts alumna Ellen J. Kullman (E ’78) will send off our seniors at commencement, and in true Tufts fashion, her appearance on campus has already sparked debate. The university’s enthusiasm about her speech conflicts with the popular sentiment among students right now that she is an unworthy choice for the role. As a result, some seniors are even planning not to attend the ceremony. TuftsNow issued a press release highlighting her laudable achievements in the business world, most notably as DuPont’s first-ever female CEO. She is a University Trustee, one of Forbes’ “World’s Most Powerful Women” and a past President of the U.S. China Business Council. Despite these qualifications, though, her tenure at DuPont was far from spotless. The company was found liable and fined heavily for exposing a woman, Carla Bartlett, to local drinking water contaminated with the carcinogenic chemical C8, as well as for failing to report toxic pollution in West Virginia.
In light of those events, many students on campus have expressed the sentiment that inviting her in the first place was a mistake. I don’t want to mince words here — what happened at DuPont during Kullman’s tenure was immoral and unconscionable. But that being said, I disagree with the idea that Kullman should not have been invited as commencement speaker due to a scandal at the world’s largest chemicals company, for which she was not directly responsible.
Leaders in business and politics are almost always forced to make unpopular decisions. To contextualize Kullman’s decision, as a CEO of a multinational corporation, it is impossible to control every single action taken by your employees. In fact, Charles Elson, chair of Corporate Governance at the University of Delaware and a leading authority on corporate compliance, said of Kullman, “She was handed a bad set of cards when she came in. The issues at DuPont go back a long time. It wasn’t her doing.” While Kullman indubitably could have done more to prevent these fiascos, given her position of power, it is unfair to paint her failure to do so as malicious, and absurd to insinuate that this should preclude her from speaking on campus and sharing her extensive knowledge of business and leadership with the graduating class. Considering the much higher standard to which female CEOs are subject compared to their male counterparts, even for the same actions, drawing such a conclusion is even more harmful.
Tufts has taught us how to think critically about the imperfect world around us and how we can improve it. Controversy is not new to us, and we have been able to face it with a healthy dose of skepticism. Madeleine Albright spoke at our Commencement in 2015 despite the fact that she oversaw U.S.-led sanctions that have been thought to have caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children. Hank Azaria was praised as 2016’s Commencement speaker although he has built his career off of a racist portrayal of South Asians and used his speech at Tufts to make jokes about “worship[ping] an elephant.” Most of our leaders are flawed in some way, so rather than unrealistically hoping we can invite a speaker who is a paragon of virtue to send off our seniors, we should try to understand and learn holistically from Kullman’s career after hearing out what she has to say.