MIDDLEBURY -- Middlebury College officials must have assumed they were ensuring a protest-free graduation ceremony when they chose Ann Veneman, director of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), to deliver the May 28 commencement address.
The college's announcement last month emphasized that UNICEF ranks as the world's largest provider of vaccines to poor countries. Veneman's agency also helps provide food and clean water to impoverished children, promotes educational parity for girls, and strives to protect children from violence, exploitation and AIDS, Middlebury further noted. In addition, the college pointed out, Veneman was the first woman to serve as head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Surely, with these credentials, there would be no repetition of last year's brouhaha over the selection of former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani as speaker.
A recent broadside signed by 18 faculty members denounced the decision to honor Veneman as "inconsistent with the values of the college and with the values of most Vermonters." The professors called attention to her work in the 1990s as a Washington lobbyist for Dole Foods, a global agribusiness accused of exploiting farm workers and befouling the environment in developing countries. Around the same time, Veneman also served as a board member of Calgene, the first company to mass-market a genetically engineered food product -- the "Flavr Savr" tomato.
"Those who applaud the college's efforts to support local farms, for example, will find her long association with agribusiness and genetically modified foods troubling, to say the least," the protesting faculty wrote in Middlebury's student newspaper.
Vermont's congressional delegation told Veneman that her treatment of dairy farmers was an example of the Bush administration's "farmer-unfriendly" policies, the professors noted.
During her 2001-04 tenure as USDA secretary, Veneman blocked a regulation prohibiting road construction in national forests, adds Christopher McGrory Klyza, a political science and environmental studies professor and one of the protest letter's signers.
Some students are equally irked. They may stage a low-key event prior to the commencement ceremony "to affirm the values that Middlebury College claims to represent," says Mike Ives, a student scheduled to graduate next February.
As the Bush administration's first agriculture secretary, Veneman "worked directly against small farmers and people struggling to produce sustainable agriculture," says Tara Vanacore, a Middlebury senior who grew up in Bridport. Vanacore says she's offended that someone "so opposed to the interests of most Vermont farmers" will be the featured speaker at her graduation ceremony.
Ives notes Vermont's status as "one of the states with the most organized resistance to genetically modified foods." Inviting Veneman to Middlebury represents "a slap in the face to Vermonters who have been working on this issue," he says.
Veneman, 56, grew up on a family peach farm in California, according to her official biography. The faculty protestors point out, however, that the peach farm was on the outskirts of Modesto, an agribusiness hub with a population of more than 200,000.
"She stands for corporate farming despite the small-town image she's marketed under," says Ives.