Rutgers Changes Commencement Speaker Selection Process After Condoleezza Rice Protests

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—After protests led to Rutgers University's graduation speaker, Condoleezza Rice to back out of the $35,000 job last spring, the university announced it will be making changes to the selection process.

A major complaint from protestors was the lack of democracy provided to the university community in the commencement speaker selection process.

While many students, faculty, staff, and alumni expressed distaste for Rice's involvement in the Iraq War, others were upset that the university appearead to deviate from its usual selection policy.

In response, the University Senate has amended the commencement speaker selection process to make it more democratic, though the final say will still rest with the school's Board of Governors.

Greg Brown, CEO of the Motorola Corporation, the man whose connections helped land the agreement for Rice to speak, was named the Chairman of the Board of Governors shortly after the debacle.

“The Board of Governors does have the final say on who gets recommended for honorary degrees and who the commencement speaker is,” said Ann Gould, the Chairperson of the University Senate, during their September meeting.

Gould expressed confidence that the new process would allow for greater democracy.

A new committee was formed to handle speaker selection that would “consist of faculty, administrators, student leaders, staff and alumni, and the executive secretary of the senate,” according to Gould.

“The work the Senate Committee will do is to research and vet the nominees that have been nominated for an honorary degree, and present a ranked list to the chancellors or the university president depending on the campus,” said Gould.

Rutgers officials said that Rice, the U.S. Secretary of State and National Security Adviser under President George W. Bush, was selected as the commencement speaker for the 2012-2013 school year, but due to a scheduling conflict could not attend.

Instead, Rice was quietly offerred the invitation in June 2013 to speak at the Class of 2014 graduation, without a selection process being undertaken.

The Rutgers administration did not acknowledge Rice's hiring as commencement speaker until February 2014, sparking tremendous criticism from faculty, students, and outside observers.

As pressure mounted on the Rutgers administration, Rice backed out of the speech, taking Rutgers by surprise and giving a victory to students and other activists who opposed her being honored by the university.

In September, the Office of the Secretary at Rutgers University sent out a University-wide email, calling for students, faculty and staff to submit proposals for 2015 honorary degree nominations. 

Typically, one of the honorary degree recipients will also give the keynote speech at the graduation ceremony.

However, the email did not make mention of a commencement speaker, only the honorary degrees.  Nominations closed on October 6.

University Secretary Leslie Fehrenbach told New Brunswick Today that this process is undertaken every year, and that it was not a result of the controversy surrounding the selection of Conodoleezza Rice as the 2014 Commencement speaker. 

Editor's Note: The author of this article was one of the many protesters who opposed the honorary degree for Condoleezza Rice.