Rutgers’ Choice of Commencement Speaker Angers Some

By Brenda Flanagan

Her reputation drives the debate at Rutgers. Former Bush Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice — war-mongering architect of the Iraq War? Or brilliant, self-made inspirational diplomat? She’s scheduled to speak at commencement ceremonies in May.

“I know there’s a lot of debate about it but I think for all her achievements she should be respected here,” said a student.

“The problem with Condoleezza Rice is that she’s viewed as a war criminal. The controversy and conflict is really pulling Rutgers in half right now,” said another student.

Rutgers’ Board of Governors Chair Gerald Harvey said he was surprised by the debate.

Surprised, but undeterred. Harvey chairs Rutgers’ Board of Governors, which invited Rice.

“I think having a woman who grew up in the segregated south and became provost of Stanford University and Secretary of State of the United States, that’s a wonderful profile to present to people and I’m very pleased that she will be our commencement speaker,” Harvey said.

But Rice drew protests in 2006 at Boston College’s commencement.

Some students there turned their backs. Discovering Rutgers had invited Rice to speak gob-smacked the faculty here.

“It’s inconceivable to me the Board of Governors could not have known this was a highly controversial choice,” said Rutgers Professor Rudolph Bell.

Faculty at both the Newark and New Brunswick campuses urged university officials to un-invite Rice.

“Nobody doubts Condoleezza Rice is a powerful person. It’s what she did that the Faculty Council found offensive,” Bell said.

When it comes to selecting a commencement speaker, colleges and universities across New Jersey make their own rules. Some pay an honorarium. Others refuse.

Kean University paid both musician John Legend and film director Spike Lee $25,000 each. But Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor spoke for free at Ramapo. And Princeton won’t pay Al Gore when he addresses students this year. In fact, Rutgers didn’t pay commencement speakers until author Toni Morrison — $30,000.

University President Robert Barchi defended choosing Rice, calling her “one of the most intellectual and political figures of the last 50 years. Rutgers can thrive only when it vigorously defends the free exchange of ideas in an environment of civil discourse.”

Rutgers will pay Rice $35,000.