Rutgers University President Robert Barchi reaffirmed the decision to make former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice commencement speaker in a letter to the Rutgers community Friday that addressed the “spirited discussions” surrounding her invitation.
“Whatever your personal feelings or political views about our commencement speaker, there can be no doubt that Condoleezza Rice is one of the most influential intellectual and political figures of the last 50 years,” Barchi said in his first public statement since a faculty group passed a resolution calling for Rice’s invitation to be rescinded.
Barchi said Rutgers received both support and opposition from members of the administration, students, and alumni in light of the speaker selection.
Rutgers Prof. Rudolph Bell, one of the authors of the resolution, said more than 350 tenured faculty members signed the petition objecting to the Board of Governors’ decision.
“I think President Barchi and the Board of Governors may not have realized what a controversial invitation they were extending,” Bell said.
Bell said that Rice played a prominent role in advancing the Iraq War by misleading the American people into believing that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. Further, Bell said that Rice supported enhanced interrogation techniques such as waterboarding, a human rights violation the faculty council does not endorse.
But not everyone at Rutgers shares the same views about the first female African-American national security advisor and secretary of state speaking at the 2014 commencement.
Joe Cashin, Rutgers University senior and student representative to the Board of Governors, said those in opposition to Rice represent a vocal minority.
“Most of the graduating seniors that I’ve talked to are very excited that she’s coming,” he said. “She definitely embodies Rutgers’ mission of diversity.”
While members of the campus newspaper, The Daily Targum, prefer a non-politician to speak at commencement, Editor-in-Chief Alexandra Meier said she sees the value in Rice’s selection.
“She came from almost nothing and there are so many Rutgers students who come from low-income backgrounds and have to work their way up,” Meier said. “I think they can be inspired by her story.”
Prof. Alan Cander teaches public policy at the graduate and undergraduate level at Rutgers University and agrees that students can benefit from the school hosting Rice as a commencement speaker.
“She’s inspirational on a couple of different levels in terms of rising from a lower class, as a racial minority, and as a woman, so there’s class, race, and gender bottled up in one person who did something pretty spectacular with her life,” Cander said. “She should be inspirational to everyone.”
Cander said that allowing Rice to speak at commencement promotes intellectual inquiry and critical thinking. He applauds President Barchi for upholding these academic values.
“I think if we were to ban Condoleezza Rice from speaking, we would be going in a very wrong direction, and I think that would send a very bad message to other universities,” Cander said. “To me, it is analogous to censorship and it’s completely anti-intellectual.”
While Bell appreciates President Barchi taking steps to engage in dialogue with those in opposition to the board’s decision, he does not feel that prohibiting Rice from speaking at commencement violates academic freedom.
“I think President Barchi is fundamentally wrong in casting it as an issue of academic freedom because to me and all of the people working with me, nobody’s academic freedom extends to being the commencement speaker,” Bell said.
Bell said he joins the Board of Governors in inviting Rice to the university but thinks that a teach-in or a forum that opens the floor to questions and debate is a more fitting setting.
Bell and his colleagues have been criticized for going public with their opposition to Rice.
“The faculty’s self absorbed view of geopolitics reinforces their elitist academic persona,” state Sen. Joe Pennacchio said in a statement. “These learned professors think they know what is best for all of us [and] stand as self imposed guardians of the truth – the truth as they see it.”
Cashin said that while it is within the faculty’s first amendment rights to question Rice’s selection, commencement is a ceremony for the graduating students.
"What’s upsetting is that this is really a commencement for students and all the seniors who are graduating have really worked hard to make sure they can graduate from this great university,” Cashin said. “It’s disappointing how the faculty are the loudest ones against Rice speaking at a commencement that is for us.”
Rice will receive $35,000 for the speech, and Rutgers will award her an honorary Doctor of Laws degree. In the letter, President Barchi asked the Rutgers community to renew its commitment to discourse and intellectual inquiry.
“Like our fellow citizens, you and I—our colleagues—have deep and sincerely held beliefs and convictions that often stand in stark contrast to others around us,” Barchi said. “Yet, we cannot protect free speech or academic freedom by denying others the right to an opposing view, or by excluding those with whom we may disagree.”