Rutgers should learn from Brandeis
Editorial | Reconsideration of commencement speaker by U. is warranted
With Rutgers University’s 248th commencement ceremony just weeks away, protests over having Condoleezza Rice as the commencement speaker are still going strong. The administration has made its stance on the issue very clear: In an email to the entire University, President Robert L. Barchi said despite the opposition, Rice will still be welcomed as the commencement speaker, given a $35,000 honorarium and presented with an honorary Doctor of Laws degree.
This last point is probably the most problematic, as we find it difficult to understand the reasoning behind presenting an honorary degree to someone who is clearly not considered worthy of the honor by several University affiliates. But Rutgers is not the only university dealing with controversy over commencement this year. Brandeis University made headlines last week with its decision to cancel the presentation of an honorary degree at commencement to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a renowned women’s rights activist who is scheduled to speak at a graduation event. While she is respected for her academic accomplishments and for overcoming challenges in her personal life that she is certainly entitled to speak to, Ali is also known for her blatantly Islamophobic comments and her campaign against the entire religion — in her words, “Once [Islam is] defeated, it can mutate into something peaceful. … I think that we are at war with Islam. And there’s no middle ground in wars.”
What kind of message would Brandeis be sending if it presented its most prestigious honor to a woman who is responsible for this kind of hate speech and for condemning an entire religion? It was a very poorly made decision, but we still think it is commendable that Brandeis realized this and corrected its mistake.
We wish we could say the same about our own university. Despite the controversy, the protests across the Rutgers community and a faculty petition with more than 350 signatures, Barchi and the Board of Governors have made it clear they will not compromise on their decision. Instead, those in favor of having Rice insist that rescinding her invitation or even revoking her honorary degree would be in violation of the First Amendment’s right to free speech. This is a weak defense that completely misses the point. It’s not that Rice is not welcome at Rutgers, it’s that our commencement ceremony is supposed to be about celebrating graduates’ hard work and accomplishments, and it’s not the appropriate venue for such a polarizing figure to deliver the address and receive an honorary degree.
Besides, what does it even mean to be presented with an honorary degree? According to the Rutgers University website, “This degree recognizes an individual’s exceptional achievement or distinction in a field or activity consonant with the mission of the university. Through this major public action, the university is able to acknowledge worthy individuals of national and international acclaim whose accomplishments support the ideals of the university and serve as an example for our students, alumni and society.”
By presenting Rice with an honorary degree, the University makes clear that it believes Rice’s achievements — which include the political decisions made during her time as Secretary of State, specifically, the invasion and subsequent destruction of Iraq — are in line with the values of the University and are worthy of this honorary degree. It means that the University considers her to be someone the graduating class should look to as a role model. But who gets to make that call? There needs to be a more transparent process of selecting commencement speakers and recipients of an honorary degree because the decision to invite and honor Rice is clearly not representative of our entire university, or even a majority of it, in any way.
We commend Brandeis University for reversing its decision and taking the opinion of its community into consideration. Of course, it is a major embarrassment for the university to have offered the degree to a bigoted person in the first place, but it has at least done the right thing instead of stubbornly refusing to consider a majority opinion to try and save its own face. By refusing to compromise on the issue of not only inviting, but also honoring Rice at our commencement ceremony this year, Rutgers is only digging itself into an even deeper hole.