June 18, 2019 | 75° F

Open letter to Robert L. Barchi regarding choice of speaker

Letter to Editor

We are writing to express our dismay to your March 7 email, President Barchi, regarding the invitation to former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to deliver this year’s commencement speech.

You justify the invitation by stating that Rice “is one of the most influential intellectual and political figures of the last 50 years.” Rice has certainly been influential, but you neglected to say one word about what her influence was about. If Rice had a major role in some humanitarian efforts, in the development of a new vaccine or in the nation’s cultural life, one suspects you would have mentioned it. In this case, however, you are totally silent. We can only conclude that you are not comfortable with what Rice’s influence actually wrought.

In the absence of any mention of the disastrous Iraq war, the misleading claims that led to it and the Bush administration’s use of torture, what your email is in effect saying is that a person’s social standing and political influence are sufficient grounds for awarding an honorary degree and extending an invitation to deliver a commencement address. Your position implies that we should not consider what a public figure has actually done with her power when we select her as a role model and invite her to lecture our graduating students about their futures, their dreams and the service one hopes they will render to society. The thought that the president of the University might believe this is disheartening. But if you do not, if you agree that an institution such as ours should uphold deeper values, then the question is: What in the world, President Barchi, were you and the Board of Governors thinking when you chose Condoleezza Rice to symbolize those values?

Your message also invokes the topic of free speech and academic freedom. This argument is entirely beside the point — to insinuate that the ongoing protests against your decision are akin to an attack on either of those principles suggests an astonishing lack of understanding of both.

You state that free speech and academic freedom “cannot insist on consensus or popularity.” You are absolutely right, and Rice would be welcome — even by critics like ourselves — to visit Rutgers and give a talk or participate in a debate. But the commencement and the awarding of an honorary degree are a totally different matter. A commencement speech, in particular, does imply both consensus and popularity, and in fact “insists” on it in the most solemn fashion, before students who are in no position to respond. This is why imposing a controversial figure like Rice on our graduates, during the happiest and most consensual moment of their association with Rutgers, is a blatant manipulation and a profoundly immoral act.

We are proud members of this great University and have been for many years. We feel that the decision dishonored Rutgers by inviting and honoring Rice. We will continue to fight this decision, and we very much hope that it will be rescinded.

Rudolph Bell is a distinguished professor of history at Rutgers University-New Brunswick.

François Cornilliat is a distinguished professor of French at Rutgers University-New Brunswick.

Uri Eisenzweig is a distinguished professor of French and comparative literature at Rutgers University-New Brunswick.

By Uri Eisenzweig

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