July 21, 2019 | 92° F

Commencement is not the appropriate venue for speech from Rice

Letter to Editor

We write to reply to University President Robert L. Barchi’s March 7 defense of the decision to grant an honorary degree to Condoleezza Rice and to invite her to give the commencement address at the Rutgers Commencement in May.

At the outset, we wish to record our concern that this decision was made in secret, outside of the traditional Rutgers procedures for selecting commencement speakers. Instead of soliciting nominations, the University community was simply informed last November that there was no need to make any suggestions because the decision on who would speak at commencement had already been made. We are concerned that the decision was made in a way that essentially denied free speech and open discourse to the University community.

It could not have come as a surprise that the selection of Rice as our commencement speaker and the recipient of an Honorary Doctor of Laws degree would create considerable controversy among students, faculty and alumni, and result in considerable undesirable attention for Rutgers. Surely we have had enough bad publicity for a while.

In the last eight years only two universities, the Air University (the Air Force’s Air Education and Training Command) and Southern Methodist University (the home of the Bush Presidential Complex), have awarded honorary degrees to Rice, despite her prominence. The letter sent to the University community does not explain the reasons for what is an almost singular action by Rutgers. Many people believe that her selection at this time is part of a broader political agenda and will tarnish the image of Rutgers.

The overwhelming majority of the objections are regarding her selection as the commencement speaker and the recipient of an Honorary Doctor of Laws degree, not to her appearance at Rutgers. The greatest recognition any university can confer on an individual is an honorary degree — “a degree for the sake of the honor.” The bar for such recognition is, rightly, very high. Honorary degrees are awarded to individuals not simply because they have an inspiring life story, have held high office, or have had many achievements — but also because they serve as moral exemplars.

Every member of the faculty welcomes the opportunity for discourse, dialog, debate and the free exchange of ideas. A commencement speech does not provide any of those opportunities. But Barchi writes: “Yet, we cannot protect free speech or academic freedom by denying others the right to an opposing view, or by excluding those with whom we may disagree.” No one is seeking to exclude Rice.

Rutgers can be spared two more months of agonizing controversy over whether we should present Rice as a role model for our students and, in the words of the “Guidelines on Honorary Degrees,” officially state that her accomplishments “support the ideals of Rutgers and serve as an example to our students, our alumni, and society.” Rutgers would be spared still more damaging publicity if we could convince the Board of Governors to rescind her invitation to be the Commencement speaker and instead to organize a major forum/teaching event on recent American history to which she and other distinguished speakers could be invited to educate our students and faculty.

The Executive Committee of the New Brunswick Faculty Council.

By The Executive Committee of the New Brunswick Faculty Council

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