Rutgers commencement goes off without hitch, despite speaker controversy

                                                          JASON TOWLEN / (Somerville N.J.) Home News Tribune
                                                          JASON TOWLEN / (Somerville N.J.) Home News Tribune
Posted: May 20, 2014

It was an afternoon of pomp and relatively little circumstance. And for Rutgers University administrators, that very ordinariness was reason enough for relief.

Two weeks after student and faculty protests pressured former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to bow out as commencement speaker, the university held its annual graduation ceremony, conferring degrees on some 16,000 students Sunday in a proceeding short on political fireworks and long on feel-good moments - such as a tearful tribute to Eric LeGrand, a graduating Scarlet Knights football player paralyzed during a 2010 game.

That's not to say the speaker kerfuffle went unnoted.

Former N.J. Gov. Thomas H. Kean, Rice's replacement, urged graduates to embrace civility and resist the ideological bomb-throwing that has come to characterize public discourse.

He also showed he wasn't above a bit of levity in his address, delivered to about 5,000 students kitted out in cap and gown at the university's HighPoint Solutions Stadium in Piscataway, N.J.

"I'll tell you what I believe about the graduation speaker," Kean said. "It's sort of like the body at an Irish wake. It's necessary, but you don't want it to intrude too much on what else is going on."

University president Robert L. Barchi, too, obliquely acknowledged the controversy as he welcomed Kean to the stage.

"Our university, our community, our democratic society ultimately depend on the free exchange of ideas and views," he said. "The issues you will face on your journey are too important to remain silent."

But silence was never the problem in the run-up to Sunday's ceremony.

When Rutgers administrators announced in March that Rice had been selected to deliver the annual commencement speech, a faction of students and faculty balked.

Professors at Rutgers' New Brunswick campus objected, citing Rice's role in the American invasion of Iraq and the sanctioning of waterboarding as an interrogation technique. Student protesters staged sit-ins outside Barchi's office.

Rice, who served as secretary of state from 2005 to 2009 under President George W. Bush, backed out this month, saying she did not want to become a distraction.

But even in a commencement season notable for the number of speakers at campuses nationwide deemed too politically toxic by some portion of the student body, Rutgers remained a flashpoint.

For days, newspaper columnists and cable TV talking heads alike have either lauded the Rutgers demonstrators as heroes or held them up as objects of scorn.

In a speech at Haverford College - which also held its graduation ceremonies Sunday - former Princeton University president William G. Bowen delivered a harsh rebuke to protesters at campuses across the country, calling their tactics "immature" and "arrogant."

The college's originally scheduled speaker, Robert J. Birgeneau, former chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley, backed out over objections to his 2011 decision to use force against students protesting rising college costs.

In a Huffington Post column published one day before she was set to accept her Rutgers diploma, Amani Al-Khatahtbeh, one of the leaders of the Rutgers protests, defended the campaign.

"We are on the cusp of inheriting this world as our own," she wrote. "These protests are our generation's rejection of detrimental policies and actions that have somehow been sold to us as being acceptable."

Kean, who served as New Jersey's chief executive from 1982 to 1990, adopted a softer approach in his address to graduates Sunday.

"We need to work hard at understanding each other," he said. "Otherwise it's me on CNN, you on Fox, and never the twain shall meet."

But for all the talk of political tolerance, it was football that proved the true uniting force. Students gave a standing ovation to LeGrand, who was honored with a speaking berth alongside Kean as a representative of the Class of 2014.

A head-on tackle during a 2010 game against Army left LeGrand paralyzed with a severe spinal-cord injury.

Though doctors had predicted he would remain a quadriplegic and tied to a ventilator, LeGrand has undergone a remarkable recovery in the four years since, regaining some movement and sensation and returning to school to earn a bachelor's degree in labor relations.

Speaking Sunday from his motorized wheelchair and in sight of a banner featuring his retired No. 52, LeGrand urged his peers to always persevere.

"Keep on believing in me. Keep on believing in yourselves," he said. "Because we're going to change the world together."


jroebuck@phillynews.com

215-925-2649

@jeremyrroebuck

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