Rutgers commencement controversy: Condoleezza Rice should have stood firm against smear campaign

Condoleezza Rice, under pressure from student activists and professors, has canceled her scheduled commencement address at Rutgers University.

It is a serious mistake.

“Commencement should be a time of joyous celebration for the graduates and their families,” Rice said in a saccharine statement. “Rutgers invitation to me to speak has become a distraction for the university community at this very special time.”

The decision cost Rice a $35,000 fee, but the loss isn’t only monetary. It was also a loss in a big battle of ideas being fought on American campuses.


In an open letter to Rutgers’ president, the leaders of the university’s Islamic organizations, Ahluk Bayt, MuslimGirl and the Muslim Student Organization, accused Rice of “grave human rights violations, defrauding the American public” and “unequivocal support for enhanced torture tactics.” During a six-hour “occupation” of a campus office building, demonstrators labeled Rice a “war criminal” and suggested that her rightful place was not in front of a college commencement crowd but in the docket.

According to the protesters’ letter to the administration, the primary “affectees” of American policy, which Rice helped formulate as national security adviser and secretary of state, were Muslims. That, in the opinion of the student activists, meant that the university had no right to invite her without their permission. A group of faculty members supported this idea.

It didn’t matter to the protesters or the professors that the decision to invite Rice was made unanimously by the university commencement committee; or that the Rutgers University Student Assembly voted on March 27 against revoking the invitation.

The protesters didn’t accept the legitimacy of the vote. One of the group’s leaders, Sharif Ibrahim, explained why to a reporter from New Brunswick Today: “You can’t hold anyone accountable on the election because you don’t know how they voted.” Ibrahim didn’t say what he meant by “accountable.”

Unlike the president of Brandeis University, who caved to pressure last month and disinvited human rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali from his university’s commencement ceremony, Rutgers President Robert Barchi publicly refused to withdraw Rice’s invitation. (Who knows what he said privately?) But when she let him off the hook by canceling, he loftily announced that the university “respects her decision.”

Rutgers is a state school, so, naturally, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie weighed in on this affair. Two hours after he emerged from a colonoscopy, he sent this Twitter message: “As usual, a class act by a great public servant.”

But Rice’s decision wasn’t classy. It was irresponsible. Dr. Rice, who has spent 30 years on the faculty at Stanford, knows that campuses are a place where America’s adversaries (and the friends of its adversaries) mobilize naïve kids and a coddled professors in an effort to influence public opinion and undermine America’s international image and foreign policy.

Dr. Rice should have kept the commencement date and used it as a teachable moment. It was a chance to inform students that the “war criminal” charge is a transparent attempt to tar those who fight back against armed Islamic radicalism as imperialists, racists and sadists.

Those in the dock are not only members of the Bush administration. President Clinton and his security staff are there, too. They believed and acted on WMD intelligence in Sudan, fought an air campaign against Saddam Hussein and fired missiles at terrorist camps in Afghanistan.

Also in the dock is the Obama administration, whose policies in Yemen, Pakistan, Libya and elsewhere have resulted in the deaths of Muslims.

In each case, the motive was not land or oil or votes – it was to cope with varied threats springing out of radical Islam.

And when Rice said these things, Gov. Chris Christie should have been on the platform, facing the hecklers and affirming the right of New Jersey’s biggest public university to honor a talented and public-spirited scholar-diplomat whose biography and character make her the best kind of role model for Rutgers graduates.

Of course, some of the professors would have smirked. A minority of students would have booed or turned their backs. A few might have thrown shoes in the newly imported style of political discourse popular in the Middle East.

But most would have listened and learned. Even more important, they would have witnessed an admirable and courageous woman standing up to an intellectually dishonest smear campaign directed not only at her, but at her comrades in arms and her country.

That would have been a class act.