LETTER: To President Obama, from a #NoRice student representative

Dear Mr. President:

Many, if not most of my peers and colleagues, at Rutgers University were delighted at your presence at our 250th commencement. I appreciate your mindfulness of their sentiments. For over three years many from the Rutgers community worked hard to ensure your attendance — their diligence paid off. However, I would like to thank you for an entirely different reason.

Mr. President, I was one of the student organizers who lobbied against Secretary Rice’s speaking invitation in 2014. Your comments, albeit antagonistic to our approach, is testament to the strength of student activism. When the sitting president finds it necessary to mention student-led actions from years prior, it means quite a lot. For this I sincerely thank you!

Mr. President, on Sunday you mentioned something that I could not agree with more, that "ignorance is not a virtue." Unfortunately, this saying applies to your own speech as well, for much of what you said with regard to our activism was enshrouded in ignorance. Either your advisors were oblivious to the facts on the ground or your speechwriters were deliberately obfuscating history. Nonetheless, you assumed that we were not "willing to listen to each other" and were "scared to take somebody on" when in fact you were describing the other side, the University's administration. After our repeated calls for meetings were declined, and the administration decided to ignore set democratic precedents, as evidenced by OPRA email requests, we had no choice but to peacefully protest as we did.

With regard to Secretary Rice, her speaking on campus on any other occasion would have been fine. However, a commencement is not a place for dialogue and debate. There is only one podium and one microphone. In addition to that, at commencement Secretary Rice was to be given an honorary doctorate, when her and the previous administration’s actions were nothing but dishonorable. And you know very well, that the Iraq War was and is an ugly stain on our nation’s image, whose haunting effects continue ceaselessly.

Lastly, Mr. President, you and all those elected to higher office are public servants. It is our duty as the public to hold you accountable with our right to freedom of assembly, the right to freedom of association, and the right to freedom of speech. This was precisely our course of action, it may not have seemed pretty but "dissent is the highest form of patriotism."

Most respectfully,

Shabbir Agha Abbas

Shabbir Abbas is a Graduate School—New Brunswick Class of 2016 graduate and School of Arts and Sciences Class of 2014 alumnus.

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