Author cancels graduation speech amid harassment allegations
Children’s author Daniel Handler has canceled his commencement speech at Wesleyan University amid allegations of sexual harassment, the school announced Thursday.
Instead, the May graduation speech will be given by Anita Hill, who drew attention in 1991 when she testified that then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas sexually harassed her while he was her boss. She is now a professor at Brandeis University and already was scheduled to receive an honorary degree at Wesleyan’s commencement.
“Daniel Handler has chosen to withdraw as Wesleyan’s Commencement speaker this May,” university President Michael Roth said in an email to students Thursday. “We’ve agreed that the focus of the event should be on the Class of 2018, their families and the celebration of graduation.”
Handler is best known for writing the million-selling “A Series of Unfortunate Events” novels under the name Lemony Snicket. In February, several women said online that he had made sexual comments at professional conferences and public events in recent years. They made the accusations in the comments section of a blog post about sexual harassment in the writing community.
Handler later apologized in an online post, saying he never meant to insult his colleagues. He added that “as a survivor of sexual violence, I also know very well how words or behaviors that are harmless or even liberating to some people can be upsetting to others.”
The private school of about 3,000 students announced the change days after students and alumni began protesting Handler’s selection. Some posted fliers around campus urging school leaders to cancel Handler’s speech and replace him with Hill, saying “time is up on workplace harassment. It is an insult to survivors, women, people of color and Dr. Hill to give this honor to Handler.”
“We feel that there’s no place for him on that stage,” said Sarah Small, a senior at Wesleyan who led the effort to block Hander. “He has demonstrated he really does not have a sense of what is appropriate to say.”
Handler, who graduated from Wesleyan in 1992, also had been chosen to receive an honorary degree at the ceremony. The school says he no longer will.
It is not the first round of public scrutiny over Handler’s remarks. While hosting the National Book Awards in 2014, he made a joke about watermelon after presenting the young people’s literature prize to author Jacqueline Woodson, who had won for her autobiographical “Brown Girl Dreaming.”
He later apologized and called it an “ill-conceived joke.” Woodson responded that Handler “showed that he believed we were at a point where we could laugh about it all. His historical context, unlike my own, came from a place of ignorance.”
Handler joins several other authors who have been accused of sexual harassment or misconduct in recent weeks.
Sherman Alexie, best known for his semi-autobiographical novel “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” issued an apology Wednesday after being accused of sexual misconduct. The allegations were made online in anonymous comments in a January School Library Journal post about sexual harassment in the children’s book industry.
The comment thread also included allegations against “Maze Runner” author James Dashner and “Thirteen Reasons Why” writer Jay Asher. Both have been dropped by their literary agents.
Small, the Wesleyan student, said Handler deserved to face consequences for his comments even if they aren’t as shocking as other misconduct that has come to light amid the #MeToo movement.
“It all comes from the same root issues of objectification of women, and sexism and racism,” she said. “What we’re seeing out of this movement is that women are just tired, that there are no consequences for men who do horrible sexist things.”
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