Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has withdrawn as commencement speaker for Rutgers University, following fierce protests from faculty and students over her role in the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.
"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.”
The student government was more divided, having voted 25-17 in March in favor of having her as speaker for their commencement on May 18.
"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," Rice said.
She added, "I understand and embrace the purpose of the commencement ceremony and I am simply unwilling to detract from it in any way."
Rice has elicited recent controversy in other arenas as well. After the digital storage firm Dropbox decided to appoint her to the company's board of directors last month, online activists organized a campaign called "Drop Dropbox," citing earlier statements she made defending the National Security Agency's warrantless wiretapping program.
"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," the university said in a statement.