Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was scheduled to deliver the commencement address at Rutgers University in two weeks, though she withdrew over the weekend in response to fierce protests from faculty and students.
“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 in a statement posted on her official Facebook page Saturday.After the Rutgers Board of Governors picked the former Bush official in February, Rutgers faculty immediately circulated a petition denouncing Rice for playing a significant role in “efforts to mislead the American people about the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.”
In a separate statement, the university said, “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.”
Rice’s defenders have made an argument that, at first blush, seems pretty persuasive: in order to thrive, universities must welcome a variety of viewpoints, including those from controversial figures.
A “heckler’s veto” is inherently problematic, but in an academic setting, it runs counter to the very idea of institutions of higher learning.
But in this case, the details matter, and the argument from Rice’s allies has some important flaws.
It’s one thing to invite the former Secretary of State to speak on campus; it’s something else to invite her to deliver a commencement address. If students and faculty had organized protests to discourage Rice from making remarks and participating in a public debate, that would be wrong, but there’s a qualitative difference with a commencement address, which is, practically by definition, a distinct honor and privilege.
The distinction matters. Indeed, Rutgers, a state school facing real budget challenges, even agreed to pay Rice $35,000 for her remarks. The backlash from critics was inevitable.
But there’s arguably even more to this. Rice wasn’t just a leading member of a failed team; she’s part of an administration for which there’s been little accountability. Polite society still treats the Bush/Cheney team as little more than “controversial” former officials, not political pariahs. These former officials feel no burden of shame; they address public affairs with no humility; they offer guidance on public policy as if their credibility is intact.
It seemed hard to imagine in, say, 2007 and 2008, but leading figures from the Bush/Cheney Team haven’t gone away at all – they’re hired to help the public understand current events; they’re given lucrative and powerful jobs; they’re elected to prominent public office; their words of advice are sought out regularly.
And in Rutgers’ case, they’re given a very large check to receive a distinct university honor.
The political world never stopped, reflected, and came to a firm conclusion about whether these officials ,who failed so spectacularly that the consequences will continue to be felt for many years, should be welcome in the American mainstream and celebrated as reliable sources of wisdom.
A group of students and faculty at Rutgers considered Rice’s record and said, “No.” It’s hard to blame them.