Rutgers: Rice will speak at commencement

FILE - In a Jan. 24, 2008 file photo, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice smiles during a meeting with trade union leaders in Medellin, Colombia. For the first time in it's 80-year history, Augusta National Golf Club has female members. The home of the Masters, under increasing criticism the last decade because of its all-male membership, invited former Secretary of State Rice and South Carolina financier Moore to become the first women in green jackets when the club opens for a new season in October. (AP Photo/File)
FILE - In a Jan. 24, 2008 file photo, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice smiles during a meeting with trade union leaders in Medellin, Colombia. For the first time in it's 80-year history, Augusta National Golf Club has female members. The home of the Masters, under increasing criticism the last decade because of its all-male membership, invited former Secretary of State Rice and South Carolina financier Moore to become the first women in green jackets when the club opens for a new season in October. (AP Photo/File) (AP)
Posted: March 09, 2014

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. Embracing criticism about its selection, Rutgers University affirmed Friday that it will host former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as the commencement speaker at its New Brunswick campus graduation in May.

The university's board of governors approved Rice - and $35,000 compensation - at a Feb. 4 meeting. In the weeks since, criticism has emerged through opinions in the student newspaper, an online petition, and most recently, a resolution passed Feb. 27 by the campus' Faculty Council.

The symbolic measure denounced Rice as having a "prominent role" in President George W. Bush's administration in attempts to "mislead the American people about the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq."

Other professors and some state officials, including State Sen. Joe Pennacchio (R., Morris) and Assemblywoman Mary Pat Angelini (R., Monmouth), have spoken out against the faculty council's resolution. A statement by Angelini characterized the move as rooted in differing ideology.

In a statement Friday to the university community, Rutgers president Robert L. Barchi said the school welcomed the debate.

"We have even heard from high school students who have written to say that they would withdraw their Rutgers applications if we rescind - or fail to rescind - our invitation to her," the statement said. "Yet we cannot protect free speech or academic freedom by denying others the right to an opposing view, or by excluding those with whom we may disagree."

The faculty council's resolution claims that Rice condoned the Bush administration's waterboarding policy. It insists that the university should not grant an honorary doctor of laws degree to "someone who participated in a political effort to circumvent the law."

Robert Boikess, a professor of organic chemistry with the university since 1968, said he introduced the resolution after concern grew among faculty and students about the pick. He said many would not object to Rice visiting the university for a debate or other discussion.

"The objection is to her as the commencement speaker and the recipient of a degree when so many people feel she did some things that are not consistent" with those honors, he said. Boikess said he could not say whether he would attend the ceremony if Rice remained the speaker.

Boikess, who said he had received nearly 60 "obscene and nasty" e-mails between Thursday and Friday, said a faculty letter was also being drafted to oppose Rice as the speaker. He expected "hundreds" of signatures.

A petition initiated by an alumnus on the website change.org had garnered about 400 signatures by Friday night. Its listed goal was 1,000.

The university, in turn, touted Rice's career. Politics aside, Barchi's statement said, Rice is "one of the most influential intellectual and political figures of the last 50 years."

Rice was national security adviser under Bush before being named secretary of state in 2005, becoming the first African American woman in the post.

Not all faculty members agreed with the council's resolution. Haim Baruh, a mechanical engineering professor who was at a conference during the meeting last week, said he would have voted against the measure.

"We're talking about an individual with a distinguished career, [who has] served at the highest places and has done a good job at it," Baruh said, calling the resolution's claim of Rice misleading the country "opinion and not based in fact."

The council's move would not do anything but make the university "look bad," he said. And, he added, "the university has already decided."

Last year, retired State Supreme Court Justice Virginia Long delivered the address. In the fall, Barchi wrote a letter asking President Obama to serve as the commencement speaker in 2016 for the university's 250th graduation.


afichera@philly.com

856-779-3917 @AJFichera

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