NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—After a week of fierce protests against her, former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has decided not to give the commencement address at Rutgers on May 18.
Rice said she was did not want the “distraction” to take away from the commencement ceremony in Piscataway.
“Commencement should be a time of joyous celebration for the graduates and their families. Rutgers’ invitation to me to speak has become a distraction for the university community at this very special time.”
“As a Professor for thirty years at Stanford University and as it’s former Provost and Chief academic officer, I understand and embrace the purpose of the commencement ceremony and I am simply unwilling to detract from it in any way.”
On Monday, nearly 50 students occupied the Old Queens administration building in New Brunswick, home of President Robert Barchi’s office. But Barchi was nowhere to be found.
On Friday, Rutgers suddenly canceled the first in a series of events celebrating their acceptance into the Big 10 Athletic Conference. An anti-Rice protest had been planned to coincide with the Big 10 event.
Later that day, nearly 100 protestors finally caught up with Barchi at a University Senate meeting, where he fielded questions about the process by which Rice was selected, her record as National Security Adviser and Secretary of State, where he was on Monday, and the treatment of protestors who occupied Old Queens and were denied bathrooms or access to food during the six-hour standoff.
“We visited you on Monday and got no response. [You] denied us access to the bathroom and threatened us with suspension and arrest,” the protesters said in unison, according to the Daily Targum.
“Now we’re here for those answers.”
Barchi ultimately passed the buck to his bosses, the Board of Governors: “I do not have the authority to rescind that invitation,” he told the Senate and protestors, according to Daily Targum’s Lin Lan and Lidia De Los Santos.
The controversy first erupted in February, when the Board of Governors swiftly approved Rice’s nomination for an honorary degree and announced she would be the commencement speaker, a position that comes with a $35,000 honorarium and an honorary doctorate of laws degree.
Rutgers officials maintained that Rice was selected through the same process that has been in place for years.
“The process for selecting Secretary Rice as the commencement speaker for the 2014 Rutgers University Commencement and as the recipient of an honorary degree followed procedures that have been in place for a decade or more,” said university spokesman Greg Trevor on Friday.
But typically, recommendations are solicited throughout the year from faculty members, while Rice’s selection took most faculty members by surprise causing an uproar that led to a decisive vote against her by the Rutgers Faculty Council, as we reported.
According to officials, when Rice declined to speak at the 2013 ceremony due to a scheduling conflict, Rutgers quietly invited her to speak at the 2014 ceremony.
Emails released by the university revealed that Rice was invited more than a year before the scheduled speech, on April 29, 2013. Rice accepted the invitation on June 2, 2013, months before the annual honorary degree committee was even formed.
In fact Rice’s invitation likely would have come even sooner had it not been for another controvery involving someone named Rice, after a video surfaced of the school’s basketball coach abusing his players.
“Given recent events I think we should hold off on sending [the speaker offer letter] for a while,” wrote University Secretary Leslie Fehrenbach on April 4, 2013.
“But when things calm down I will have Bob [Barchi] approve it and we will agree on a time to send it.
The emails also revealed that Rice is personal friends with Greg Brown, a Rutgers Board of Governors member and CEO of Motorola Corporation.
“[Rice] is good friends with Greg Brown so he gets all the credit for securing her to us,” wrote Fehrenbach.
Brown is a prominent Republican in his home state of Illinois who is also close with NJ Governor Chris Christie.
According to Fehrenbach, just two of the fifteen Board of Governors members were involved in the selection process: Brown and Margaret Derrick.
But Derrick learned of Rice’s selection from Fehrenbach, months after Rice had been invited and selected.
“Our speaker is Condoleezza Rice! But please don’t tell anyone,” wrote Fehrenbach in the November 5 email to Derrick. “We won’t release her name until February or April.”
The committee that supposedly considered Rice to be the 2013 speaker consisted of just six members: Brown, Derrick, Barchi, Rutgers VP of Academic Affairs Dick Edwards, and two professors: Laura Lawson and Howard McGary.
McGary was replaced by Medical School Chancellor Brian Strom in this year’s honorary degree committe, which had a limited role because two of the three honorary degrees were already spoken for, Rice’s and that of Gerald Harvey.
“Gerry Harvey will receive an [honorary degree] as the outgoing [Board of Governors] chair,” wrote Fehrenbach “Since Bob [Barchi ] has agreed to 3 HD recipients, that leaves one more to select.”
With just fifteen days until graduation, Rutgers is likely scrambling to find a new speaker for the large ceremony at the football stadium, and it is unclear whether that person will receive an honorary degree.
“Further details about the commencement will be announced in the coming days,” said Trevor.
Charlie is the founder and editor of New Brunswick Today, and the winner of the Awbrey Award for Community-Oriented Local Journalism. He is a proud Rutgers University journalism graduate, a community organizer, and a former independent candidate for mayor of New Brunswick.