Last week, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice decided against speaking at Rutgers University’s commencement ceremony. Though the Rutgers administration declared that it continues to stand by her invitation to speak, Rice declined so as to avoid “a distraction for the community at this very special time.”
Why should such a distinguished political scientist and diplomat be concerned that her speech should be a distraction? Since the Rutgers Board of Governors had approved Rice as the speaker three months prior, students and faculty had protested the invitation and accompanying speaker’s fees and honorary degree vehemently. Claiming that her false statements on the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and her support of the resulting invasion made her a war criminal, the protesters demanded that the board withdraw her invitation. The student protesters’ tactics — occupation of a University senate meeting, forcing entry into the president’s office and picketing — were direct and disruptive to an extent to which this semester’s protests at Princeton opposing Richard Falk and by Praxis Axis, haven’t come close.
The protesters were concerned that Rice would be speaking to a captive audience with no chance for dialogue, but I am unconvinced that Rutgers deciding against a commencement-stage political debate would result in its students being captivated by her war-criminal ways. Though the protestors may disagree with her political views, as I do, it is disingenuous to call her a war criminal absent conviction. The controversy is, in any event, quite beside the point of commencement. Rice, having given up her dream of being a concert pianist to become a successful black woman in a field still dominated by white men, presumably has much of interest to say on topics of greater relevance to graduating seniors, like how to keep achieving upon entering the real world and how to overcome obstacles on the road to success. Because a number of passionate students threatened to disrupt commencement, Rutgers students missed the opportunity to listen and to learn from Rice’s considerable experience.
Speaking of opportunities to listen, the Rutgers administration’s response to the protesters fell flat. Mainly, by refusing to acknowledge the protesters’ legitimate concerns about Rice’s record, the administration encouraged continued escalation by protesters who felt their voices were not being heeded. It is not (and should not be) problematic to choose a controversial figure to speak at commencement proceedings — look no further than Ben Bernanke’s speech at last year’s Baccalaureate, or Al Gore’s speaking at Class Day next month — but student concerns should at least be acknowledged, and it is worth reconsidering the decision to endorse the entirety of Condoleezza Rice’s persona by awarding her an honorary degree. Indeed, the restructuring and lack of transparency in Rutgers’ Honorary Degree Committee — detailed by the Rutgers Daily Targum — is concerning to say the least.
Commencement is, as Rice noted in her decision to step down, “a time of joyous celebration for the graduates and their families.” It is also, however, a culmination of four years of intellectual inquiry and broadening horizons. A peaceful protest of the politics of an otherwise remarkable speaker at commencement would be a fitting capstone to all of this. The protesting students, however, were not planning a peaceful protest. Provoked by the administration and their own adamant judgment on Rice, they threatened that commencement would be significantly interrupted, provoking Rice to step back.
The protesters strongest concerns — that Rutgers was giving Condoleezza Rice a captive audience by giving her a platform to speak with no opportunity for response and that it was endorsing the entirety of her life’s work by granting her an honorary degree — could have been allayed without the university or the former secretary of state backing down from the invitation to speak. In the spirit of engaging debate, a panel discussion between Rice and others interested in American policy of the time — perhaps including Toby Jones, an associate professor of modern Middle Eastern history at Rutgers, who is writing a book titled “America’s Oil Wars” — before or after the ceremony, would allow dialogue without bringing undue confrontation into the ceremony itself.
Arguments on both sides of the controversy have called it an issue of free speech — whether Rice’s free speech or that of the students was being suppressed. Note that since Rice withdrew of her own volition and the student protesters faced no legal consequences for their speech, even in regards to trespassing, neither party came close to having their First Amendment rights violated. This is instead a matter of academic freedom. All involved students, faculty and staff should be concerned in the utmost that student passion and administrative obstinacy resulted in the suppression of a number of valuable discussions within the Rutgers community.
Bennett McIntosh is a chemistry major from Littleton, Colo. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.