Posted by Michael Poliakoff and Avi Snyder
It’s a sad day for Rutgers University. Amidst widespread student and faculty protests over her selection as Rutgers’ commencement speaker, Condoleezza Rice has turned down her invitation. In a statement, she said that her background in academia allows her to “understand and embrace the purpose of the commencement ceremony”; to that end, she was “simply unwilling to detract from it in any way.”
What made Rice, an accomplished scholar, public servant, and America’s first female African-American Secretary of State so toxic? Her role in the Bush administration, of course. To Rutgers’ students and faculty, her service in an administration that spearheaded bad policies renders her unfit to be heard.
The contrast between Rice’s behavior and that of Rutgers’ guardians of political correctness is enlightening. In March, the Rutgers Faculty Council passed a illiberal resolution to rescind the invitation, which essentially called for the worst sort of political discrimination. And the obnoxious and unreflective behavior of many Rutgers students who staged a sit-in at President Robert Barchi’s office sporting signs attacking Rice as a “war criminal,” was unbefitting the students of a great public university.
Rice, on the other hand, has behaved with grace and aplomb throughout this controversy. She remained silent during the initial burst of backlash, wisely staying above the fray. And her recent statement reflects thoughtful consideration and a magnanimous desire to prioritize the needs of the students who insulted her above her own interest.
Though there’s plenty of blame to go around, Rutgers’ board and administration deserve a hat-tip. Unlike Brandeis University’s Fred Lawrence, who quickly rescinded an honorary degree from Ayaan Hirsi Ali in the face of protest, Rutgers’ President Barchi rightly stood by Rutgers’ invitation, writing, “We cannot protect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.”
Ultimately, the losers here are Rutgers’ seniors. The university will survive this disgrace, and Rice’s tremendous accomplishments are not at all diminished by this episode. But the graduating class will now be denied the opportunity to hear from one of America’s most accomplished women.
That’s a terrible shame, as they have a lot to learn from her–grace, dignity, and civility, for starters.