Students and professors at Rutgers University in New Jersey protested the university’s decision to invite Condoleezza Rice as the commencement speaker for its 2014 graduation ceremony this month. Rice declined the opportunity citing the disruption her presence would cause during a traditionally celebratory occasion.
Students protests following the announcement of the university’s selection of Rice, which eventually led to formal decisions regarding her invitation that upheld the university’s original decision. However, upon hearing about the conflicts arising on campus due to her scheduled appearance, Rice voluntarily declined to speak at the ceremony.
According to statements during the protests and formal requests to rescind her commencement invitation, the reason for the student body and faculty resistance is her role as the U.S. Secretary of State under George W. Bush during the Iraq war. Her statements regarding the Middle Eastern nation’s supply of weapons of mass destruction some say directly facilitated the U.S. entry into the war, which may have otherwise been averted.
The Iraq war was a conflict responsible for the death of more than 4,000 U.S. soldiers that ended in December 2011. The WikiLeaks released Iraq War reports showed that 109,032 military and civilian Iraqis died in the conflict.
Protesters chanted “Cancel Condi,” during the time following the commencement speaker announcement.
Following the protests against the planned ceremony speaker, the university’s elected student assembly held a vote to decide whether the invitation to Rice should be upheld. The student government voted in favor of Rice as the speaker by a vote of 25-17. Most of the student body was in favor of her commencement address moving forward as planned.
The Rutgers University President Robert Barchi said in response to demands to change the commencement speaker that the university would uphold its decision and would not respond to the preferences of a particular political faction that is only part of a larger university community.
Rice response was both supportive of the graduation tone and in defense of her record of service for the U.S. “Commencement should be a time of joyous celebration for the graduates and their families,” her official statement said. “Rutgers’ invitation to me to speak has become a distraction for the university community at this very special time.”
She added in defense of her former role as Secretary of State. “I am honored to have served my country. I have defended America’s belief in free speech and the exchange of ideas. These values are essential to the health of our democracy.”
The commencement speaker at Rutgers receives a fee of $35,000 and an honorary doctorate. It is not yet known who will replace Rice, but an announcement is expected to be released in the coming days.
Two years ago Rice successfully delivered the commencement address for Southern Methodist University that has a George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum. A recent commencement speech for Boston College, however, also resulted in protests and open rebuffing by the student body and faculty.
A commencement speaker is usually the keynote speaker for a college graduation ceremony that offers advice and words of wisdom for a graduating class about to embark on the world and make change. It is an honored position and most universities seek to invite a significant figure that represents the values or mission of the educational institution. Rice was selected due to her distinguished career, academic experience and landmark accomplishments as a successful female minority in politics.
Rice is an accomplished intellectual, politician and current professor of political science at Stanford University. She is also a concert pianist and has performed for Queen Elizabeth. She is also the first female African-American Secretary of State.