Commence the Firestorms

April 6, 2014

By Susan Snyder at The Philadelphia Inquirer

Since Rutgers chemistry professor Robert Boikess successfully urged faculty last month to oppose Condoleezza Rice as commencement speaker for her role in the Iraq war, he has been called “racist,” “liberal” – and worse.

The selection of the former secretary of state has set off nothing short of a firestorm on campus with Boikess and his colleagues planning a “teach-in,” launching a website to build opposition, and filing a flurry of public records requests aimed at uncovering how Rice was invited.

Student government held its own spirited debate, ultimately voting to welcome Rice. And some high school seniors have warned that they would withdraw their applications if the school rescinded – or didn’t rescind – the invitation.

“It’s a polarizing, divisive issue,” said Ann Gould, a professor in the plant biology and pathology department. She chairs the university senate, which has commissioned a study in the wake of the controversy on how Rutgers selects its speaker.

So much for pomp and circumstance and feel-good celebration.

College commencement season increasingly has become a time of consternation over who will deliver that ever-important address to students and in many cases pick up an honorary degree.

It’s “what we call disinvitation season,” said Greg Lukianoff, president of the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a free-speech advocacy group.

Speakers as diverse as Colin Powell, Lance Armstrong, Jerry Springer, and Rudy Giuliani, are announced and then opposed by faculty, students, or other groups for something they did or said.

Lukianoff has compiled a list of 70 cases over the last decade (he says it’s not exhaustive) in which controversy erupted over a commencement speaker. In nine, the speaker withdrew, and in five, he or she was asked not to come. In a few others, honorary degrees were withheld.

“It certainly seems like this is happening more often,” Lukianoff said. “Every commencement season seems to get a little more intense.”

Last year, there were 17 cases, including several involving local colleges or officials. At Swarthmore, Robert Zoellick, former president of the World Bank and an alumnus, backed out after students mounted a campaign against him for backing the Iraq invasion.

Gov. Corbett spoke at Millersville University – a Pennsylvania state school – despite an online student protest critical of his budget cuts to higher education. The Rev. Kevin R. Johnson, pastor of Bright Hope Baptist Church in Philadelphia, also stood his ground and spoke at Morehouse College’s baccalaureate ceremony despite blowback over criticism he leveled at President Obama in a published op-ed for having fewer minority members in his cabinet than George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. The baccalaureate ceremony at the historically black college was the day before commencement at which Obama was the speaker.

“After the article, there was an attempt to get me to not speak or to become part of a panel of three. I refused,” Johnson said. “Morehouse is committed to free thought and free speech, and for me to not stand up for the principles the school was founded on would be for me not to live up to the principles I was taught when I was a Morehouse student.”

He ultimately gave his keynote and was invited to remain for commencement and sit on stage while Obama spoke.

No other local controversies have emerged so far this year, with speakers including songwriter and musician John Legend at the University of Pennsylvania, NPR’s Terry Gross at Bryn Mawr, and state Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi at Widener.

At Rutgers, the controversy started in February after the board of governors approved Rice – the first African American female secretary of state and now a political science professor at Stanford – as the May 18 commencement speaker. She had been recommended a year earlier by a six-member committee led by president Robert Barchi and composed of two board members, two professors, and an administrator.

Rice, who was national security adviser when the Iraq war started, has been a controversial speaker choice. In 2006, some faculty and students at Boston College’s commencement stood and turned their backs to her.

Rutgers’ faculty immediately objected, primarily to plans to award her an honorary degree, which comes with the speaker duty.

“Condoleezza Rice helped create a fake case for invading Iraq and she basically condoned torture in the form of waterboarding,” said Mark Killingsworth, an economics professor and vice chair of the Faculty Council.

Boikess, who received 70 pieces of hate mail for opposing Rice, said the school should pick someone who provides a good moral example and uplifts graduates. Steer clear of political or controversial figures, he said, with the exception of a president or governor whose office commands respect. A professor at Rutgers for more than 40 years, he can recall no other such controversy over a speaker.

Some faculty said they suspected Rice’s selection was political and suggested that Gov. Christie was eyeing her as a possible vice presidential running mate.

“Complete nonsense,” said Greg Brown, chairman and chief executive officer of Motorola Solutions and a Rutgers board member who served on the selection committee.

Brown declined to say how Rice came to the attention of the committee but said he was “absolutely and fully supportive without equivocation.”

Rice grew up in the segregated South, became the youngest provost in Stanford’s history, and went on to national leadership.

“This has to do with having an appropriate role model who will inspire our graduates,” he said.

Rice’s office did not respond to requests for comment, but Barchi said on Tuesday that she remains “totally committed” to attending. Rutgers pays a $35,000 honorarium.

Students say they hope that any protest at the school would occur quietly and outside the stadium where graduation will be held.

“We worked very hard to get our degrees, and we’re excited for this,” said Joseph Cashin, a senior and student board representative, who supports Rice as the speaker.

Next year, he said, student input should be sought earlier: “This is our ceremony, and we’d like to have a voice.”

Schools: Rutgers University – New Brunswick Cases: Nationwide: Colleges Across the Country Disinvite Commencement Speakers