Former World Bank president withdraws from Pennsylvania college commencement

The former president of the World Bank has withdrawn from a Pennsylvania college’s commencement following critical comments posted on a school newspaper forum.

Robert Zoellick, a 1975 alumnus of Swarthmore College, also declined to receive an honorary degree, according to an announcement by Swarthmore President Rebecca Chopp that was obtained and first reported by the Philadelphia Inquirer.

"I don't want to disrupt what should be a special day for the graduates, their families, and friends,” Zoellick wrote in an email Chopp distributed on Friday. “Nor do I have an interest in participating in an unnecessarily controversial event.”

Chopp, in the email, praised Zoellick’s “knowledge of the global economy” with a vision of how it can address poverty, social equality and justice.

“He is a model for students who want to combine knowledge with service, ethics with outreach, and wisdom with a commitment to the wider world,” the email, which was obtained by, continued. “Swarthmore is very proud to claim him as an alumnus and stands by its decision to award him the honorary degree.”

Zoellick, a senior fellow at Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, served as the 11th president of the World Bank Group from 2007 to 2012. He has also worked as the executive vice president of Fannie Mae and a senior international adviser to Goldman Sachs.

During a forum hosted by the school’s newspaper, a user who identified themselves as Will L. took issue with Zoellick’s tenure at the three institutions and claimed his role helped “build an ideological foundation” for the Iraq war.

“His whole career has been built on one morally dubious enterprise after another," the posting read.

In 1998, Zoellick, the newspaper notes, was among the members of the Project for the New American Century — a conservative think tank — who signed a letter urging President Bill Clinton to remove then-Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein from power because of an assumption that Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Donald Rumsfeld also signed the letter and would later lead the invasion of Iraq as President George W. Bush’s secretary of defense.

Other students generally defended the choice of Zoellick for June 2 commencement, the Inquirer reports.

Swarthmore College is a private university with roughly 1,500 students about 10 miles southwest of Philadelphia.

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