NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—Nearly 50 Rutgers students opposed to commencement speaker Condoleezza Rice stormed into Old Queens around 12:30pm yesterday, demanding a meeting with University President Robert Barchi, who was not in his office.
The protestors held their ground inside the administration building for over six hours, while several dozen others gathered outside, chanting in solidarity.
Dr. Rice, the former Secretary of State and National Security Adviser under President George W. Bush, is set to receive an Honorary Degree of Laws on May 18 at Rutgers Stadium in Piscataway.
In February, the Rutgers Board of Governors swiftly approved her nomination to serve as the keynote speaker, which includes the honorary degree and a $35,000 honorarium.
Event organizers said their opposition was based on questions of human rights and morality, not a matter of choosing political sides or stifling free speech.
Sherif Ibrahim, a graduating senior, told New Brunswick Today that Rice is “free to speak wherever and whenever she wishes,” but a commencement address does not offer back-and-forth to allow for discourse.
“We don't believe someone who circumvented the law deserves an honorary law degree,” Ibrahim said.
“[Rice] should not be held up as the standard to which graduating students should aspire – which a commencement speaking invitation directly implies. We can do better as a university community.”
SPARKS FLY BETWEEN STUDENTS AND VICE CHANCELLOR
New Brunswick Today was embedded with the protesters inside the "Old Queens" administration building on College Avenue, which houses President Barchi's office.
Protesters were ultimately unsuccessful in securing a meeting with Barchi, but Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Felicia McGinty arrived just over an hour after the protesters forced their way into the building.
McGinty told New Brunswick Today that Barchi was "off campus" during the time of the sit-in. She told protestors that she could not guarantee a meeting would be granted by Barchi's office.
"I have no opinion," she began, in response to a question about her thoughts on Rice's invitation.
"I think you all are passionate. You want to have your concerns known and they've been heard. I do not think that will change, her being the graduation speaker"
"I have no personal opinion to offer but to tell you all that your concerns have been heard. I believe there's some validity to them. And quite honestly–I'm just keeping it real–I don't believe that any of this will change who the graduation speaker is," McGinty said.
One student, representing three Muslim organizations on campus, handed McGinty a letter intended for Barchi. It can be found below this article.
Her interactions with the students were tense throughout the six-hour occupation, and she did not directly respond to most of the comments made by students during a volatile 30-minute discussion.
At one point, McGinty raised her voice at one student who criticized her, "Let me respond to you. Let me respond to you because you have a lot of lip!"
"I think the reason why things are not going to change is because of people who talk to us like you," the student had previously told McGinty.
"The people who actually show their face and talk to us and are said to listen to us and represent actually have no opinion and tell us things are not going to change. The people who have opinions–the people who have the power to make and affect change–are nowhere to be found," the student said.
McGinty also criticized the group for breaking a windowpane in one of the doors to the President's Office.
"I understand someone has been cut by the glass or whatever," McGinty said, deflecting questions about the Iraq War.
"Glass has been broken. Someone may have been injured," she said. "Once we cross the line into something that is not a peaceful protest… then you're treading in a place that I can't support."
Another student asked McGinty: "It doesn't bother you that someone like her is coming and is being honored with such a degree and such an amount of money?"
"No, actually what's bothering me right now is that you all are preventing people from being able to do their work and that you all have created an environment that's a concern, a safety concern," McGinty responded.
McGinty told protesters she would work with Barchi's office "to try and find time to meet with you this week."
She took issue with the manner in which the protestors aired their grievances.
"You come over and you scream and you yell and at the end of the day you're sweaty and you feel like you accomplished something. But screaming and yelling is not going to create–"
"Every major change in history has come about through disruptions and civil unrest," interrupted one student.
"What about the civil rights movement?" asked another.
"Our disturbance is nothing compared to what the Iraqi people have gone through," declared another in an impassioned speech.
UNDER THREAT OF ARREST, PROTEST ENDS PEACEFULLY
The students said they were threatened with arrest and suspension if they did not vacate the building, and were not permitted to use the building's restrooms or accept food deliveries to the building, which was already locked down before their arrival.
A National Lawyers Guild observer was present within the building during the occupation. Somerset-based lawyers Steven Weissman and Ira Mintz, arrived at 5:15 pm to help mediate the situation, roughly 80 minutes before the students vacated Old Queens.
Both Weissman and Mintz stated they were present to ensure students rights were being protected, and that "the university recognized their rights to speak out peacefully against the decision to invite Condoleezza Rice as speaker."
In the end, protestors left at 6:50pm where they received a hero's welcome from a crowd of roughly 45 supporters.
Outside, Ibrahim told fellow supporters, "This is only the beginning," he told the crowd.
Student protestor Muhammad Raza told New Brunswick Today he hopes people look at the Iraq war from a longer view of US military actions stemming from "Andrew Jackson and the Trail of Tears to Truman and the atomic bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima."
"No amount of academic achievement can make up for the direct deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, and the indirect creation of God knows how many more [terrorists] born because of the war," said Raza.
Raza finished his statement to NBT by paraphrasing noted historian Howard Zinn. "Ours is a beautiful country that has been hijacked by robber barons, corporate war mongers, elitists and market dominant minorities."
Rutgers University's Office of Media Relations did not respond to New Brunswick Today's request for comment. Rutgers Police referred inquiries to Media Relations.
For his part, President Barchi has stood steadfastly by Rice as the keynote speaker and honorary degree recipient. Barchi told the press that scheduling conflicts prevented Rice from being the commencement speaker in 2013, his first year in office.
According to Ibrahim, President Barchi’s statements on the matter have framed Rutgers community objections to Dr. Rice as “differing political opinions and not allegations of war crimes,” Ibrahim stated.
“To President Barchi, its different perspectives and to others in the Rutgers community, it's about human rights violations.”
Event co-organizer and Rutgers sophomore Sara Zayad commented that regardless whether the invitation gets rescinded or not – she and others do not expect it to be – their action Monday was “in support of humanity.”
“Sweeping the war under the rug is dehumanizing," Zayad said. "I support humanity. I support human rights. I support minority communities.”
CONTROVERSY ERUPTED AT NEWS OF RICE'S SELECTION
Barchi, one of six honorary degree committee members which ultimately made the decision, announced the invitation to Dr. Rice in February. A firestorm of discussion and protest commenced since.
On Feb. 28, the Rutgers Faculty voted to put forward a resolution to un-invite Rice from speaking at graduation, stating that such a degree "should not honor someone who participated in a political effort to circumnavigate the law.”
“A commencement speaker, who is entrusted with speaking to graduating students about the direction of their future lives, should embody moral authority and exemplary citizenship," reads the faculty resolution.
Dozens of letters to the editor have poured into Rutgers student newspaper, The Daily Targum, according to its Editor-in-Chief, Alexandra Meier, helping make Dr. Rice’s invitation one of the top ongoing news stories of the year. “When the faculty council announced their opposition to Rice, activity on our social media platforms skyrocketed,” Meier said.
The Daily Targum weighed in on the debate with an editorial titled "Rice Questionable Choice for Speaker."
“We believe that politicians in general should not speak at commencement (any other event would be OK),” Meier told New Brunswick Today. “Commencement is FOR the students — it is not a time for our student body to polarize because of contrasting political views.
In a staff editorial published by The Daily Targum, the honorary degree recognition from the University “makes clear that it (Rutgers) believes Rice’s achievements — which include the political decisions made during her time as Secretary of State, specifically, the invasion and subsequent destruction of Iraq — are in line with the values of the University and are worthy of this honorary degree.”
“It means that the University considers her to be someone the graduating class should look to as a role model,” the editorial continues.
“But who gets to make that call? There needs to be a more transparent process of selecting commencement speakers and recipients of an honorary degree because the decision to invite and honor Rice is clearly not representative of our entire university, or even a majority of it, in any way.”
STUDENT GOVERNMENT VOTES BY SECRET BALLOT TO WELCOME RICE
On March 27, Dr. Rice’s invitation and honoring was the reason for one of the most well-attended Rutgers University Student Assembly (RUSA) meetings in recent memory.
The meeting was a dual-purpose event featuring a parliamentary-style debate of whether to rescind or not rescind the Rice invitation.
Rutgers Debate Team members argued both sides of the issue – followed by a symbolic secret ballot vote of the elected members on whether or not student organization representatives wish to rescind or maintain the invitation.
As part of his brief statement to the crowd of almost 200 students at the Student Activities Center that night, Ibrahim asked students to put one’s political beliefs aside and vote judiciously, not based on ideology.
“I don’t care if its President Obama drone bombing in Pakistan and Yemen or if it’s Condoleezza Rice being complicit with everything that is happening in Iraq” Ibrahim said. “What is wrong is wrong.”
The debate and discussion was broadcast live by Muckgers.com and can be viewed here.
Despite a roughly 20-1 general audience show of hands which opposed Rice speaking at commencement & honorary degree allotment, RUSA members voted 25-17 via secret ballot in favor of welcoming Rice to campus and honoring her with the degree.
Prior to the student vote, Iraqi-American Alaa Al-Shujairi urged fellow Rutgers students to “stand on the right side of history” and oppose Rice’s invitation.
Al-Shujairi spoke of 1 million Iraqi deaths, uranium deformed babies, 4.5 million orphans and “a broken spirit” throughout Iraq – all she, attributes, to pre-emptive war and occupation of Iraq.
“An honorary degree is bestowed upon someone who is honorable. Not influential, not intellectual, not political — honorable,” Al-Shujairi said.
“Join me in opposing occupation, international war violations and war criminals. We have our voices, our votes and the truth. And we will use our power, as students of Rutgers, to honor this university by saying no to Condoleezza Rice.”
Al-Shujairi, 23, told New Brunswick Today during a recent interview that it was difficult to be in the room when the votes were counted.
The vote, she says, dehumanized her and millions of people like her.
“What exactly do we tell other students and the community what this vote means?” she asked rhetorically. “That power and intellect are more important than humanity and justice?”
The lone Rutgers Student representative to the Rutgers Board of Governors, Joe Cashin, spoke in favor of welcoming Rice to campus, rather than rescinding her invite.
Cashin said the senior class did not want to rescind the Rice invitation, and in his opinion, “it is far worse to take away the offer now.”
Cashin told New Brunswick Today he is “not the single voice” of Rutgers students, but after his personal nomination for the 2014 commencement speaker, Ellen DeGeneres, was rejected, he did his best to consult with the senior class.
“I put forward Ms. DeGeneres because this was the year Tyler Clementi would have graduated,” Cashin told New Brunswick Today. “She would have been a great LGBT representative and overall speaker.”
Ibrahim, who led the push against Rice, doesn’t lay the blame of the symbolic student vote on the 25 students who voted to maintain the invitation.
“Education about the Iraqi war has to happen, 100%” said Ibrahim. “A more holistic education, outside of the purview of being a Democrat or Republican.”
But critics said the secret ballot vote, which is required if even one member of the body requests it, can lead to a lack of accountability from student representatives.
Ibrahim agreed: "You can't hold anyone accountable on the election because you don't know the way they voted."
Outgoing RUSA President Pavel Sokolov, a four-year student government member, agrees that “people should be more accountable with their vote.”
If people want to change the secret ballot system, Sokolov says “more power to them.”
The larger issue for Sokolov is getting Rutgers students to be a more consistent presence at RUSA meetings. “It’s important for people to be engaged at the local and national levels, said Sokolov.”
“I wish when we went down to Trenton to protest for lower tuition, we had the same attendance.”
RUSA helps run on-campus charities and advocate for various common good student initiatives including expanded dining hall hours and increased library access, working with public safety towards the creation of new lights and improved bus stop safety.
Much of the work Sokolov speaks of isn’t “hot or attractive,” but it’s work that needs to get done and needs more student input.
RUSA meetings are open to the public, and Sokolov encourages the community to attend and get involved.
DEBATE AND DISCUSSION HELP CHANGE MINDS
Prior to the March 27th debate, Mason Gross Student Association Representative Ariana Blake was content with Rice at commencement, receiving the honorary degree.
However, she shifted gears and says she voted against Rice speaking at commencement and the honorary degree being bestowed her.
"As a young woman of Douglas Residential College, I always try and support female leaders because they're (female politicians) a minority."
What changed Blake's mind?
"The mock debate and all of the activity,” she said. “Before the debate I had an uneducated opinion on the choice of Condoleezza. With more context it's clear that she is not the right choice as a speaker.”
Blake admits there would have been controversy with whomever had been chosen to speak but to her, the difference is “in the consequences.”
“She (Dr. Rice) was a key player in the controversy of the legitimacy of invading Iraq,” said Blake.
“Whether or not she/her department manipulated the facts is murky and questionable, but IF she did, the results of her actions have caused the deaths and human rights violations of millions of people. IF that's true in any capacity this is not a person who should be speaking.”
Senior Sam Berman argued against the honor for Rice: “If we’re going to give a doctor of laws degree to someone who broke the law, condoned torture and lied to the American public into a war of choice, what does that say about our degrees?”
One student, who wished to remain anonymous, said, “People are star-struck about a big name figure so a prevailing mentality on campus seems to be ‘Why not welcome her with open arms?'”
Deepta Janardhan, one of the student debaters who argued the side in favor of maintaining the invitation and honorary degree to Rice, agreed with Cashin. “I’m not sure I would have invited her, but I would not rescind the invitation now,” Deepta said.
Margarita Rosario, Organizing Director of the Rutgers University Student Association, shook her head in dismay existing the building where the meeting was held.
"The decision that the Rutgers University Student Assembly made was an unfortunate one," said Rosario. "I can only hope that in the future, we do not place prestige over morality."
First-year student Sharon Tufino listened as others spoke favorably of Dr. Rice’s possible intention to speak about her upbringing in a divided South. Tufino shook her head and told New Brunswick Today, “No, no. I’m a minority as well. This is not about race.”
RUTGERS IS NOT FIRST INSTITUTION TO GRAPPLE WITH THIS ISSUE
Rutgers is not the first institution to experience discourse and varying levels of protest against Dr. Rice on campus. In 2006 at Boston College’s graduation, some students turned their backs on Rice during her commencement speech.
In 2011 at Claremont McKenna College, an “Unwelcome Rice” protest demonstration featured teach-ins, a vigil, and a waterboarding simulation while Rice was in town promoting her then new book "No Higher Honor."
In 2012, Rice spoke at Southern Methodist University's commencement ceremony.
The University of Minnesota Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) organized a protest to coincide with a $150,000 speech given by Rice on April 17 as the 2014 Distinguished Carlson Lecturer.
"From time to time, truly dangerous people do come to our campus. We would like to alert you to the upcoming presence of such a person on the University of Minnesota Twin Cities Campus. On April 17, 2014, Dr. Condoleezza Rice will be present at Northrop Auditorium at 5:00 p.m. There is probable cause to believe Dr. Rice has been involved in massive criminal activity."
Recent reports say the University of Minnesota planned her speech, on the subject of civil rights as recognition towards Dr. Rice’s “effort to foster freedom and democracy.”
Meanwhile, others have been trying to bring Rice and other members of the Bush adminsitration to justice for their alleged crimes.
Pam Spees of the Center for Constitutional Rights told New Brunswick Today that her organization "has been engaged in efforts for years to pursue investigations and prosecutions in other countries such as Canada, France, Germany and Spain, where the courts have varying forms of 'universal jurisdiction.'"
Spees said efforts to press a war crimes case in the International Criminal Court had failed, but not because there was no cause to believe that crimes were committed.
"The ICC received a flood of complaints and communications about the Iraq war. However, the court did not have jurisdiction over U.S. actors since the U.S. has not ratified the treaty — and in fact opposed the court and attempted to undermine it during the Bush administration," Spees said.
"Neither did the court have jurisdiction over the territory of Iraq since Iraq had not ratified."
"If the law cannot or does not reach certain actions, then those actions remain immunized from sanction no matter how harmful," Spees said.
"Because we want such mass atrocity and violence to end, because we want to prevent it in the first place, it is imperative that it be punished when it occurs. Unfortunately, we see these leaders going about business as usual, unchecked — without a thought for the devastation they wrought and earning large honorariums."
"And why not? There's no incentive not to do it if there are no consequences felt by those who set such events in motion."
FACULTY SEIZES ON A TEACHABLE MOMENT
Faculty in New Brunswick and Newark formally opposed the decision to award Rice an honorary Doctor of Laws degree at the upcoming commencement, citing concerns over the process by which she was selected.
Teachers said they were largely excluded from the process, which differed greatly than previous years.
“Full faculty participation is essential in the awarding of all honorary degrees. Therefore we also call on President Barchi to provide greater transparency and disclose all details of the process by which Dr. Rice was chosen to receive an honorary Doctor of Laws degree,” the Rutgers-Camden College of Arts and Sciences Faculty Senate wrote in a letter to the administration.
“We further call on President Barchi to ensure greater involvement of representative faculty and students in the selection of commencement speakers.”
Rutgers faculty members will host a May 6th “Rice @ Rutgers?” Teach-in at the Student Activities Center, 613 George St.
A 5:30 p.m. keynote address by Human Rights Attorney Jumana Musa starts the evening, followed by moderated panels on torture, the Iraq War and academic values between 6:30 and 9:30 pm.
Food and soft drinks will be provided. There is no cost to the event.