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NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—The commencement speaker for Rutgers University’s 2015 graduation ceremonies will not be made public until the school’s Board of Governors convene in Newark on April 2 to discuss the matter, officials said.
“You know I can’t tell you that,” said University President Robert Barchi, when asked about the 2015 speaker by New Brunswick Today.
Last year, the selection of former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as the school’s 248th commencement speaker was announced and voted on at the February 4 Board of Governors meeting, giving ample time for opposition to organize.
However, this year, some say that the process has been deliberately changed to prevent such an organized campaign from taking place again.
Rumors have been spreading for several weeks that television personality and scientist Bill Nye, “the Science Guy,” would be the 2015 speaker.
Nye produced educational videos for schools and public television during the 1990’s and early 2000’s. He is an advocate on the issue of climate change, and known for wearing bow ties.
A Facebook campaign, known as the “Bow Tie Campaign,” was launched by two graduating seniors, calling for Nye to be the speaker and for commencement attendees to wear bow ties.
However, no one within the Seattle-based Nye Labs was able to say either way if the rumors were true.
CONDOLEEZZA RICE CAUSES CONTROVERSY AT RUTGERS
The selection of Condoleezza Rice as last year’s graduation speaker sparked a ten-week battle over the decision that resulted in her backing out of the job, which included an honorary degree and $35,000 honorarium.
Immediately after the selection, the school paper, The Daily Targum, issued an editorial condemning Rice’s selection, calling Rice a “questionable choice.”
Several weeks later, the New Brunswick Faculty Council passed a resolution condemning the Board of Governors for their selection of Condi Rice.
“Condoleezza Rice…played a prominent role in the administration’s efforts to mislead the American people about the presence of weapons of mass destruction,” the resolution read.
Ultimately, the resolution stated that such a degree “should not honor someone who participated in a political effort to cirgumnavigate the law”.
Opinions pieces flooded Targum for the next several weeks. The administration would hold steadfast to their decision, with Rutgers President Robert Barchi and Senior Director of Media Relations Greg Trevor defending Rice’s selection.
A straw poll by The Star-Ledger showed that 67.5% of its 4,000 support Condi Rice as the speaker, while 30% opposed her.
Several weeks into March, the Rutgers University Student Assembly (RUSA) hosted both a debate by the Rutgers University Debate Union, as well as a vote on whether RUSA should support Condoleezza Rice as the commencement speaker.
The event was heavily attended by members of the Muslim Student Association (MSA) and Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), as well as curious members of the general public.
In the following vote, members of RUSA, the anti-Rice coalition and the public debated whether or not RUSA should support rescinding the invitation of Condi Rice as the commencement speaker.
The student government voted 25-17 by secret ballot in support of Condoleezza Rice.
Protests against Condoleezza Rice reached their apex with a storming and an occupation of the school’s oldest building, the Old Queens administrative offices, on April 28.
The occupation lasted six hours, as protestors both in and outside of the building confronted administrators, police, and talked with media and opposition from the pro-rice crowd.
Students prepared a letter for President Barcih, which they gave Vice Chancellor Felicia McGinty during an extended confrontation with her.
As the occupation continued, students in the building were threatened with arrest and suspension pending failure to vacate the building. Lawyers from the National Lawyers Guild, as well as a Somerset-based firm, came to the protests in an effort to aid students.
The students finally left at 6:50 pm, to a crowd of about 45 protestors and onlookers outside.
Five days later, Rice backed out of the offer, though the administration still stood be their selection of Rice. A “Rice at Rutgers” teach-in was held at the Student Activities Center on May 6.
QUESTIONABLE SELECTION PROCESS CAME UNDER SCRUTINY
As the debate over Rice’s selection became the focus of intense scrutiny, questions were also raised as to how exactly she was chosen as the commencement speaker.
Members of the University found themselves taken by surprise by the selection of Rice, despite assurances from spokespersons that the selection process was the same as every year.
Emails obtained by New Brunswick Today showed that Rice had originally been invited to speak at the 2013 commencement but declined, allegedly due to a scheduling conflict.
The scandal in March and April of that year involving basketball coach Mike Rice, and his abusive behavior towards members of the team, may have influenced Rice’s initial decision.
“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, just as the scandal was making national news.
“But when things calm down I will have Bob [Barchi] approve it and we will agree on a time to send it.
Weeks later, she would receive another invitation from the University via email, one that she accepted on June 2, nearly a year before she was scheduled to speak.
Typically, the annual honorary degree committee would accept nominations early in the fall semester, but because Rice had already been chosen, that never happened.
The emails also revealed that Greg Brown, Chair of the Board of Governors and CEO of Motorola Corporation, “is good friends with” Rice.
Board Secretary Leslie Fehrenbach wrote that only two of the Board of Governors members were involved in Rice’s selection: Greg Brown and Margaret Derrick.
Brown and Derrick were two of the six members of the powerful ad-hoc committee that secretly selected Rice. The other four were Rutgers VP of Academic Affairs Dick Edwards, President Barchi and two professors, Laura Lawson and Howard McGary.
“Our speaker is Condoleezza Rice! But please don’t tell anyone,” wrote Fehrenbach in the November 5, 2013 email to Derrick. “We won’t release her name until February or April.”
CHANGES TO PROCESS SUGGESTED, BUT NONE WILL AFFECT THIS YEAR
After the embarrassing debacle, the University pursued creating a more inclusive process of selecting the commencement speaker.
On September 15, University Secretary Leslie Fehrenbach sent out a University-wide email calling for honorary degree nominations for the 2015 commencement.
In that same month, the University Senate announced that it formed committee to handle the speaker selection process, and that it would, according to Senate Chair Ann Gould, “consist of faculty, administrators, student leaders, staff and alumni, and the executive secretary of the senate.”
“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,” Gould stated.
The committee then released its final report in February 2015.
“Until 2012, a Faculty Committee on Honorary Degrees, which included representatives from all three campuses appointed by the president, was tasked to solicit nominations for the honorary degree recipients and commencement speaker about 18 months in advance of commencement, and then to confidentially prepare a slate of candidates”, the report reads.
Consisting of 16 members, this committee would, along with the University President, present the final nominees to the Board of Governors Committee on University Relations and Honorary Degrees, before a final decision by the entire Board of Governors.
The report makes light of the fact that this process was changed in 2013 to solely the University President, the New Brunswick and RBHS chairs, a member of the Board of Governors and Board of Trustees, and two professors.
“The number of faculty participants declined from 16 in 2009 to 8 in 2013,” the reports reads.
Ulimately, the Senate committee would put forward 11 recommendations on changes to the commnecement process, though none of them wereable to implemented in time for the 2014-2015 academic year.
As of this year, the Senate Executive Committee was tasked with looking over nominations, reject anyone deemed unsuitable, and rank the remaining candidates for the Board of Governors and President Barchi to review and select.
But members of the Executive Committee did not respond to inquiries as to why the announcement would not come out until April, as well as whether the Senate review of nominees had anything to do with the late announcement date.
Many opponents of Rice’s selection felt that the decision to vote on and announce the commencement speaker so late in the year, and to hold vote outside New Brunswick, was by no means an accident.
“Blatantly hiding the decision until April is ridiculous and unheard of,” wrote Amani Al-Khatahtbeh, who had been active in the leadership against Condoleezza Rice.
“The administration is completely disconnected from the student body and provides no outlets for students to voice their concerns — actually doing everything it can to ignore them.”
Sherif Ibrahim, another leader in the April 2014 protests, expressed similar sentiments.
“Chief of Staff Greg Jackson and President Barchi requested research on more democratic commencement speaker selection processes at Big 10 schools and universities similar to Rutgers, which students delivered,” Ibrahim wrote.
“There is consensus on democratization. To President Barchi: why nothing has changed?
Award-winning, multimedia journalist with experience in digital first and print-media. Daniel has covered local, state and regional issues, and utilized photography, social media and has written in-depth articles to produce high-quality work.