By Scott Nisley
Officials at Rutgers-New Brunswick never withdrew their invitation or tried to bar Condoleezza Rice from making her scheduled appearance at the university’s commencement ceremony. It was Rice herself who pulled out of the graduation speech, refusing her honorary degree and the $35,000 she was set to receive, after a growing opposition against her took the form of protests by students and faculty.
On Saturday the former Secretary of State announced she was backing out of the May 18 address, and cited the recent conflict surrounding her appearance as a “distraction” to everything the commencement ceremony is supposed to represent: a celebration of the academic achievements of 2014’s graduating class.
According to The Star Ledger, she informed Rutgers President Robert Barchi of her decision and issued the following statement:
“Commencement should be a time of joyous celebration for the graduates and their families. Rutgers’ invitation to me to speak has become a distraction for the university community at this very special time,” Rice said.
“I am honored to have served my country. I have defended America’s belief in free speech and the exchange of ideas. These values are essential to the health of our democracy. But that is not what is at issue here,” she said. “As a professor for thirty years at Stanford University and as [its] former Provost and Chief academic officer, I understand and embrace the purpose of the commencement ceremony and I am simply unwilling to detract from it in any way.”
According to The Ledger, Barchi issued a public statement in response to Rice’s decision a couple hours afterwards.
“While Rutgers University stands fully behind the invitation to Dr. Rice to be our commencement speaker and receive an honorary degree, we respect the decision she made and clearly articulated in her statement this morning,” Barchi said. “Now is the time to focus on our commencement, a day to celebrate the accomplishments and promising futures of our graduates. We look forward to joining them and their families on May 18, 2014.”
Students and faculty at the New Brunswick campus began protesting Rice’s appearance at this year’s commencement speech, citing Rice as an inappropriate speaker due to her role in the Bush administration’s approval of water boarding and other controversial interrogation practices.
The debate made its way to Rutgers-Newark, stirring up a rattle among some of the faculty here.
H. Bruce Franklin, a professor in the English and American Studies departments, was among them. He too was quoted in the Ledger about a month ago when the faculty here at RU-N began rallying together.
“This is not good for Rutgers,” Franklin said. “What we’re doing is awarding an honorary degree and having a commencement speech from someone who is a war criminal.”
Unlike the negative reaction among New Brunswick students, many of the students here were unbothered by the possibility of Rice appearing at the commencement ceremony. Last week before Rice withdrew from the commencement, the overwhelming majority of students said Rice should speak.
Evelyn Gomez, a student in the Journalism Department felt that Rice had full right to take the honor of Commencement Speaker, citing her many accomplishments as reason enough to have her appear at Rutgers.
“Although I don’t agree with her political views, or what she did when she was in the Bush Administration, as a woman she’s accomplished a lot,” Gomez said. “I think that she should be allowed — I mean we allowed Snookie to come. Why don’t we allow an educated woman to come and speak?”
David Schilp, another student within the department, felt that politics were to blame in the controversy — the fact that Rice stands as a republican among a mainly democratic university community.
“I feel like the professors have the right to express that she shouldn’t be here,” Schilp said, “But at the same time she was never actually charged with the war crimes. I think it has a lot to do with democrats versus republicans. When you think of college professors, especially at a state school in a liberal state like New Jersey, the majority are very left-winged — very liberal. And since Rice is a republican, I think there’s just a clash with that. I think people in general are just too stuck up about 99.9 percent of the shit in the world these days.”
Harvey Dock, another student in the department, felt that the answer was tied to race more than personal politics.
“I definitely think there’s a touch of racism involved,” Dock said. “Historically, in looking at situations like this, I’ve seen media portrayals of people of color in positions — and Condoleezza is one example — where I think she’s being unfairly critiqued. And I think it has a lot to do with her color, just from a historical perspective. I think race plays a big part in this.”