April 23, 2019 | 71° F

Open discourse missing from Rutgers Board of Governors


On March 7, 2014, University President Robert L. Barchi sent a letter by email to the entire Rutgers community responding to the controversy over inviting Condoleezza Rice to speak at our commencement.

Among other things, Barchi’s letter called for “open discourse.”

Taking him at his word, a number of faculty members (including some of the most distinguished ones at Rutgers) and even the Executive Committee of the New Brunswick Faculty Council wrote letters in response, some of which were published in the Daily Targum and the rest of which can be found on the “Rice@Rutgers?” Sakai page. Some of the letter writers asked for access to the email list that Barchi had used so that the discourse would indeed be open.

Here is the current status of the discourse: The request for email access received no response and no acknowledgement. The letters from faculty received no response and no acknowledgement.

The Rutgers Board of Governors has the authority to make many decisions that are of great importance to large segments of the University community. The BOG sometimes seeks and encourages open discourse and input from the community to help it with its decision-making responsibilities. There is a formal agreement between the University and the American Association of University Professors requiring that the BOG’s agenda be sent to the AAUP at the same time it is distributed to the members of the Board.

But open discourse was certainly not a factor in the decision to name Rice, nor in the aftermath of that decision. Although Rice was “secured” to be the 2014 commencement speaker early in 2013 (she was not available for May 2013 and was then offered the May 2014 slot), not only was there no open discourse about her selection, but it was also kept secret until very recently. Furthermore, even when it was finally put on the agenda of the BOG in February 2014, the required notification to the AAUP was not provided.

When a group of distinguished faculty members asked to present the details of the opposition to the decision, shared by more 350 of their colleagues, at the next meeting of the BOG, the request for open discourse was denied.

Open discourse had long been a tradition in the nomination process of commencement speakers and honorary degree recipients. That tradition appears to have changed in 2012, shortly before Rice was first recommended. The large, broadly representative nominating committee of faculty and students was replaced by a committee of two administrators, two board members, and two faculty members. It was this committee that selected Rice as the commencement speaker.

In view of this sequence of events, we are tempted to conclude that the drastic change in the composition of the honorary degree nominating committee was arranged by design and was not unrelated to the highly controversial selection of Rice.

One important venue for open discourse is the University Senate. The president of the University usually gives an administrative report and then answers questions from senators. Unfortunately, Barchi was unable to attend the senate meeting on March 28, at which the topic of the nomination and selection process for commencement speakers was raised.

Here are some of the questions that would have been asked of Barchi in order to facilitate an open discourse, had he been able to attend the senate meeting. Our hope is that he will provide the answers to these questions in as open a way as possible.

1. Why does Rutgers have a procedure for nomination of candidates for honorary degrees and commencement speakers that is far less inclusive than that of any other school in the Big 10’s Committee on Institutional Cooperation?

2. Why didn’t you notify the University community of the major change you made in the nature and composition of the Honorary Degree committee in 2012?

3. What criteria did you use in selecting the members of the 2012 honorary degree committee?

4. Have you made any changes in the composition of the honorary degree committee since 2012, and if so, what criteria did you use to add members?

5. Since 2006, no university, with the exception of SMU, the home of the George W. Bush Presidential Library, has awarded Rice an honorary degree. What reasons supporting such an award have impelled Rutgers to do what other universities have not?

6. How was it possible for Rutgers to assert definitively in November that we had “secured” a commencement speaker when the BOG did not vote to approve the selection of Rice until Feb. 4?

7. If Rice was invited to speak at last year’s commencement and accepted our invitation, but had to reschedule it, why wasn’t the Rutgers community made aware of this newsworthy item?

8. Were you surprised that the selection of Rice sparked outrage among wide segments of the University community and resulted in still another round of unfavorable publicity for Rutgers? And if you were not surprised, then why did you and the Board of Governors select her in the first place?

9. It is very likely that some of our graduates have endured family tragedies as a result of the Iraq war. Are you concerned that their commencement, which should be a joyful occasion, will be marred by the participation of Rice?

10. Since every faculty group that has spoken out in opposition to Rice’s selection as the commencement speaker and a recipient of an honorary degree has also unambiguously indicated its support for her appearance at Rutgers on any other day, why do you think the objections to her role in commencement contradict the principles of free speech and academic freedom?

We are ready to do whatever we can to facilitate open discourse. We call on Barchi and the Board of Governors to do the same.

Executive Committee of the New Brunswick Faculty Council.

By Executive Committee of the New Brunswick Faculty Council

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