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Rutgers remains firm on Condoleezza Rice as commencement speaker

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice speaks during the third day of the Republican National Convention, Aug. 29, 2012, in Tampa Fla.
Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice speaks during the third day of the Republican National Convention, Aug. 29, 2012, in Tampa Fla.

Rutgers is unlikely to revisit its decision to select former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as its 2014 commencement speaker, despite protests from faculty and students who are irate over Rice's role in the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.

The Rutgers Board of Governors is set to meet Tuesday, the last time the body will meet before commencement in May. A spokesperson for the university said there were no plans to discuss Rice's invitation to speak.

"The matter is not on the agenda for tomorrow’s meeting," said Greg Trevor, director of media relations for Rutgers.

Although considered a pioneer as the first woman of color to rise to the level of secretary of state, Rice's legacy has been complicated by her involvement in the invasion of Iraq and her support for torturous interrogations of terror suspects. More than 4,000 American servicemembers died in the Iraq War, and estimates of Iraqi deaths range between 100 and 400,000.

Shortly after the board voted unanimously to select Rice as speaker in February, university faculty began circulating petitions to have her disinvited. The Rutgers New Brunswick faculty council approved a resolution criticizing Rice for having "played a prominent role" in the Bush administration’s "efforts to mislead the American people about the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq" and for having "condoned the Bush administration’s policy of 'enhanced interrogation techniques' such as waterboarding." The faculty council "urged" the board of governors to "rescind its misguided decision" to invite Rice. The Rutgers faculty council for the Newark campus followed suit, but a similar body from the university's Camden campus declined to do so. An editorial in the Daily Targum, a Rutgers student newspaper, stated that "Rice probably has a lot of advice on perseverance, dedication and hard work that she can offer to this year’s graduating class, but what she chose to do with those qualities is certainly questionable to us."

Yet the Rutgers student body appears to be far less opposed to the board of governors' decision than the faculty. The Rutgers student assembly voted 25-17 last week to approve of the board of governor's invitation. Rice will be receiving an honorary doctoral degree and a $35,000 honorarium, according to The Star Ledger.

"The problem that the faculty have is not that she might speak, in fact I'd be delighted to hear her speak," said Mark Killingsworth, a professor of economics at Rutgers and vice-chair of the New Brunswick faculty council. "If you honor someone with an honorary degree, then you're saying this is a person who has done a lot of honorable things, and I think her record in ginning up the case for invading Iraq and in supporting waterboarding, disqualifies her for an honorary degree." Every Rutgers commencement speaker receives an honorary degree.

On March 7, Rutgers University President Robert Barchi published a letter addressed to the Rutgers community that affirmed the choice of Rice as speaker. "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. Free speech and academic freedom cannot be determined by any group," Barchi wrote. "They cannot insist on consensus or popularity. These principles are, in fact, best illustrated and preserved when we defend perspectives that we oppose or when we protect what may appear to be a minority view. "

Killingsworth described Barchi's letter as "disingenuous."

"There are very few people on this planet who enjoy more opportunity to say things in public with a very loud megaphone than Condoleezza Rice," Killingsworth said. Killingsworth added that there might be a "teach-in" prior to commencement, but that no events or protests were planned for commencement day itself.

In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, Bush administration officials repeatedly and falsely insisted that the regime of Saddam Hussein had strong links to al-Qaida and that he was hiding a covert program developing "weapons of mass destruction." In an interview with CNN on September 8, 2002, Rice famously suggested that Hussein could acquire nuclear weapons if not deposed.

"The problem here is that there will always be some uncertainty about how quickly he can acquire nuclear weapons," Rice said. "But we don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud."

No weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq.