I was asked earlier this year to give the commencement speech for Cornish College of the Arts graduation ceremonies. In advance of the Retraction episode of THIS AMERICAN LIFE going public, I reached out to Nancy Uscher, Cornish's president, and told her what was going to happen.
After the show aired we talked, and I agreed with her that it would be best that I withdraw from the ceremonies. I was asked for a statement, which I sent her on March 27th, and which I stand by. Here's that statement:
"A graduation is a day for the students who are stepping out into the world as artists in their own right. I would hate to see anything distract from their day, and so I respectfully withdraw from Cornish's graduation ceremonies this year. My best wishes to the young artists—I hope to see you out in our culture, making works that shake and stir us, and I hope you have a fantastic graduation."
I had been told that they would make the announcement with my statement, and that it would be a low-key, mutual parting of the ways without recriminations. This was made very clear to me by Ms. Uscher.
I have been asking Cornish often when they were going to make their statement. They've been uncommunicative and cagey—Nancy dodged my emails, and delayed until their statement was out this morning. When I called Karen Bystrom, the communications director, she passed the buck back up to Nancy, the same person who had been calling with supportive calls until her board told her not to, and who then drafted a statement condemning me after seeking my honorable withdrawal, which I gave her willingly.
I've apologized for what I've done wrong. Cornish's choice to grandstand on my back, when they had a very open statement from me withdrawing almost two weeks ago, is their choice. I applaud their embrace of "professional integrity"—it's unfortunate that they didn't exercise that integrity in this case.
But I certainly forgive them—I know what it's like to be caught between different sets of obligations, and how the pressure of public scrutiny can help us make unfortunate choices.
There is a lesson here for the artists that are graduating, but I do not think it is the one Cornish thinks it is teaching.