August 17, 2019 | 84° F

Documents reveal long delay in Condoleezza Rice announcement

Photo by Dennis Zuraw |

On Monday, more than 50 students march to the Old Queens Building, carrying posters and shouting chants to protest the Rutgers’ decision to invite Condoleezza Rice as the commencement speaker.

Newly uncovered documents suggest the selection process for 2014 commencement speaker Condoleezza Rice was hidden from the public and may have been biased by a personal connection with the former Secretary of State.

Others have called the process into question based on changes to the commencement committee that occurred in fall 2012. 

Rice would receive an honorary doctorate and $35,000 to be the commencement speaker this year, paid by private donations to the Rutgers Foundation. 

According to The Star-Ledger, Rutgers previously nominated, vetted and approved Rice to be the commencement speaker for the 2012-13 school year. As she had a previous commitment, she offered to be a speaker this year. 

Rice’s chief of staff sent an official acceptance of the invitation to be commencement speaker in June 2013. 

While the process of approving commencement speakers and honorary degree candidates has already been scrutinized, documents obtained through the Open Public Records Act by a member of the New Brunswick Faculty Council raised more questions of the process.

Previously, the 20-member honorary degree committee and the University would send out a request for commencement nominations to the Rutgers community about a year and a half before graduation day, said Robert Boikess, a professor in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology.

“And then in the fall of 2012, Barchi changed it for some reason to a committee that had two faculty members,” he said.

According to documents obtained through the OPRA, an email from a member of the Honorary Degree Committee sent to Leslie Fehrenbach, secretary of the University, suggests the member did not know who the speaker was months after Rice accepted the offer. 

“Our speaker is Condoleezza Rice! But please don’t tell anyone. We won’t release her name until [February] or April,” according to the email from Fehrenbach shown in the documents. 

They also show Board of Governors Vice Chair Gregory Brown has a personal connection with Rice and was a strong proponent in bringing her to commencement at the University.

But several members of the Rutgers community have voiced their disapproval based on Rice’s involvement in the Iraq war. 

Boikess said the United States went to war in Iraq because of claims the Iraqis had weapons of mass destruction, and Rice was one of the chief people making that claim. 

He said she also approved of the United States torturing people. 

The 2012 committee consisted of six people: University President Robert L. Barchi, Brown, Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs Richard Edwards, Board of Trustees member Margaret Derrick and professors Howard McGary and Laura Lawson. 

The committee reviewed the nominations and sent its selections to the Board of Governors’ Committee on Alumni and University Relations for approval, according to a statement from E.J. Miranda, director of Media Relations. 

That committee includes BOG members Kenneth Schmidt, Derrick, Anthony DePetris and Martin Perez, Board of Trustees members Andrew Berns, Dominick Burzichelli, Anthony Covington, Steven Darien, M. Wilma Harris, John Hugelmeyer, Jennifer Lewis-Hall, Carol Monroe, James Rhodes and Justine Yu, and faculty representatives Ann Gould, Samuel Rabinowitz, Asha Samant and Menahem Spiegel. 

The Board of Governors is the only University body with the power to award honorary degrees, according to the statement. 

Boikess said Barchi invited open discourse after he sent an email in May to the Rutgers community, acknowledging disagreements in the choice for the commencement speaker. He said several faculty members emailed Barchi, but to no avail. 

“Not only did he not respond to the letters, but he didn’t even acknowledge receiving it right, you know normally people say ‘Thank you very much for your email.’ … But as far as we know he never even looked at the letters,” Boikess said. 

In other cases, commencement speakers have dropped out or a university has rescinded its offer, such as when Brandeis University withdrew its offer this year to prominent Islam critic Ayaan Hirsi Ali, according to The Boston Globe. 

“It’s not a problem that she’s coming to Rutgers — it’s a problem that she’s going to be at commencement, and there won’t be any opportunities for open dialogue,” Boikess said. 

Rescinding an offer does not necessarily affect the University, but it may affect Rutgers if it fails to respond, he said. 

Boikess ascribes a good probability of a protest occurring at commencement, which he said would be the last thing Rutgers needs. 

“I hope that when she sees all the opposition to her coming here that she might not decide to come,” he said. “Keep in mind that in the last eight years she’s only appeared at two commencements.”

Rice has previously spoken at a Southern Methodist University commencement in 2012 and received an award from the Air Force Academy in 2010.

Check out our editorial on this subject.

Julian Chokkattu

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