In the spring of 2011, Rutgers University paid $32,000 to get an important, boundary-breaking woman to speak on campus: Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi of MTV’s Jersey Shore.
Yet at the same university where a crowd of over a thousand applauded Snooki’s discussion of her hair and partying, inviting Condoleezza Rice to speak at graduation is just not right, at least in the minds of a small but vocal group of faculty and students.
The selection of the first African-American woman to serve as secretary of state had the the unanimous support of the Rutgers board of directors. But a handful of professors and students opposed her invitation to speak at the 2014 commencement because of her role in the Bush administration. To his great credit, university president Robert Barchi stood by the invitation and released a note defending the choice earlier this spring. After it became clear that Rice’s participation would lead some to put their political grievances above a celebration of the students and would turn commencement day into a circus of protest, however, Rice did the regrettable right thing and withdrew.
"As a professor for thirty years at Stanford University and as its former provost and chief academic officer, I understand and embrace the purpose of the commencement ceremony and I am simply unwilling to detract from it in any way,” said Rice in a statement.
What, exactly, did the Rutgers protesters think Rice might tell students that was so objectionable? Political figures do occasionally use their platform as a commencement speaker to push their own policy agenda. In 2013, Vice President Biden spoke to graduates of the University of Pennsylvania and made sure to hit on topics from climate change to gay marriage and immigration reform. Jon Huntsman’s 2011 commencement address at the University of South Carolina was viewed as a debut for his potential presidential bid; he used the occasion to tout the greatness of free market liberal democracy (and Ben Folds).
So yes, sometimes in graduation speeches, political types get a little bit political, and not everyone in the audience will agree. It might make sense to oppose a political speaker on the grounds that the views he or she will convey will clash with the values some students hold. (Imagine being a pro-life student at Barnard College and having your graduation capped off with a speech from the national head of Planned Parenthood, as is happening later this month?)
But the extent to which Rice’s prior speeches completely avoid any and all ideological agenda-pushing makes the Rutgers protests look downright ridiculous.
Take 2006, when the then-sitting secretary of state spoke at Boston College’s commencement ceremony. The most controversial statement she made that day? Her admission that she cheers for rival Catholic institution Notre Dame’s football team. (This line drew justifiable boos.)
She told students the story of how she came to value education so dearly. Tracing her roots to her grandfather, the son of a sharecropper in Alabama, and her experiences growing up in the segregated South, she reminded students that America still thrives “despite the fact that when the Founding Fathers said, ‘We the people,’ they didn’t mean me.”
Rice reminded them that they have responsibilities as they go out into the world: to follow their passion, to rely on reason, to remain humble and charitable, and to be optimistic. In her 2012 commencement address at Southern Methodist University, she hit the same notes.
You know, all the usual saber-rattling and warmongering. Humility! Optimism! Heaven forbid we pollute young minds with such right-wing neocon propaganda!
Even when Rice’s speeches are in a political context, she avoids throwing red meat. In her speech at the 2012 Republican National Convention, a time if there ever was one for taking jabs at the other side, Rice never once uttered President Obama’s name.
When given an opportunity to speak to groups of students who are about to embark on the next chapter of their lives, armed with an education—and probably at least five figures worth of debt—Rice time and again has offered eloquent reflections on education and her incredible journey from segregated Alabama to the highest echelons of academia and government.
Her story is a remarkable one of perseverance and overcoming incredible obstacles and injustice, an inspiration regardless of one’s political views. What a shame the students at Rutgers will not get to hear it.