By Scott Malone
BOSTON (Reuters) - The managing director of the International Monetary Fund on Monday canceled a planned commencement speech at one of the most prestigious U.S. women's colleges after students protested honoring an organization that supports "patriarchal systems."
Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, said that Brown University president Ruth Simmons would instead address graduates on Sunday after students circulated an online petition asking that Christine Lagarde, a French politician who has headed the IMF since 2011, be un-invited.
The petition noted Lagarde's achievement as the first woman to run the IMF but criticized the organization.
"The IMF has been a primary culprit in the failed developmental policies implanted in some of the world's poorest countries," read the petition, which gathered some 479 signatures. "This has led directly to the strengthening of imperialist and patriarchal systems that oppress and abuse women worldwide."
The IMF said that Lagarde - whose predecessor Dominique Strauss-Kahn resigned after he was accused of sexually assaulting a maid in a New York hotel - did not want to become a distraction to the graduation ceremony.
"We did not want the IMF participation to divert attention from the remarkable achievements of the graduating students on their special day," an IMF spokeswoman said.
Smith President Kathleen McCartney said she worried the protests against Lagarde could have a chilling effect on speech.
"An invitation to speak at a commencement is not an endorsement of all views or policies of an individual or the institution she or he leads," she wrote in a letter to the campus. "Such a test would preclude virtually anyone in public office or position of influence."
Smith, opened in 1875, is one of the "Seven Sisters" colleges that served as female alternatives to the Ivy League at a time when those schools did not admit women. It has about 2,500 students and its alumnae include women's rights activist and journalist Gloria Steinem and pioneering television chef Julia Child.
Strauss-Kahn denied any wrongdoing in the New York sexual assault case. Criminal charges against him were dropped and he has settled a civil suit brought by the maid.
Lagarde is not the only powerful woman this year to pull out of a planned U.S. university commencement speech under fire. Earlier this month, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reversed course on a planned graduation speech at Rutgers University of New Jersey amid student protests over her role in the Iraq war.
(Reporting by Scott Malone; Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Andrea Ricci)