Stanford U.
Condoleezza Rice

Commencement Flip-Flops

May 5, 2014

Every commencement season brings protests over some speakers or honorary degrees. Most of the time, those protests are ignored. But in recent days, two colleges have announced changes of plans in part as a result of such protests.

Condoleezza Rice announced Saturday that she was withdrawing as the speaker at Rutgers University at New Brunswick. And across the country, at Pasadena City College, officials were trying to reinvite Dustin Lance Black, who had earlier been invited only to have his invitation revoked, prompting protests there.

Rice at Rutgers

The selection of Rice to speak at Rutgers has been a growing controversy for two months. Rice is a Stanford University professor who is better-known for serving as secretary of state and national security adviser in the administration of President George W. Bush.

The Faculty Council in March adopted a resolution that said Rice "played a prominent role in his administration’s efforts to mislead the American people about the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the existence of links between al Qaeda and the Iraqi regime," and that "the lies thus promoted led to the second Iraq war, which caused the death of over 100,000 men, women and children, and the displacement of millions of others."

Further, the resolution states that Rutgers, "as a public institution of higher learning, should educate its students about past historical events, not pretend they never took place," and that Rutgers "should not honor someone who participated in a political effort to circumvent the law."

Many Rutgers students and faculty members also said they were not sufficiently consulted about the choice, and that they would have preferred a speaker who would not have been controversial. Rutgers administrators have defended the decision to invite her, calling Rice "a highly accomplished and respected diplomat, scholar and author."

On Saturday, however, Rice issued a statement that she was withdrawing, saying: "Commencement should be a time of joyous celebration for the graduates and their families. Rutgers' invitation to me to speak has become a distraction for the university community at this very special time."

She went on to defend her government service. "I am honored to have served my country. I have defended America's belief in free speech and the exchange of ideas. These values are essential to the health of our democracy," she said. "But that is not what is at issue here. As a professor for 30 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."

Robert Barchi, president of Rutgers, sent a message to students and faculty members Saturday. "While Rutgers University stands fully behind the invitation to Dr. Rice to be our commencement speaker and receive an honorary degree, we respect the decision she made and clearly articulated in her statement this morning," he said. "Now is the time to focus on our commencement, a day to celebrate the accomplishments and promising futures of our graduates.  We look forward to joining them and their families on May 18, 2014. Further details about the commencement will be announced in the coming days."

Reaction to the news has varied, with conservative publications denouncing the protests that led Rice to cancel. The headline in The Daily Caller: "Awful School Is Awfully Intolerant."

On Twitter, the hashtag of the students protesting her selection (#norice) reflected much rejoicing on Saturday, with comments such as "Rutgers alum. Feeling so proud of students today. (As usual, embarrassed by administration.)" and "Victory for decency! Rutgers students force war criminal @condoleezzarice to back out of commencement speech!"

Robert S. Boikess, a professor of chemistry at Rutgers who is among those who have questioned the invitation, said that Rice's statement about not wanting to distract from graduation was exactly why faculty critics objected to her appearance at commencement.

Boikess said he was bothered by the Rutgers president saying that he "stands fully behind" the invitation. Via email, Boikess said: "Is Rutgers standing 'fully behind' their invitation because someone thinks political benefits are more important than a joyous commencement? Or simply because they are unwilling to admit to a mistake? Or perhaps a combination of both?"

Will Black Be Back at Pasadena?

At Pasadena City College, it remains uncertain who will speak -- and commencement is Friday.

The original speaker was to have been Dustin Lance Black, an alumnus who is a screenwriter and won the Academy Award for "Milk." Black is an advocate for gay rights who has spoken on campuses nationally about film, civil rights and other issues. Amid reports that the college was uncomfortable with Black because of a sex tape scandal several years ago, he was uninvited, and replaced with a local health official, who withdrew amid criticism of his past controversial statements. (The Los Angeles Times noted, for example, that he said that anyone who teaches evolution is "Satanist.")

Black has made no secret of his anger at his alma mater for uninviting him. On his blog, he wrote a post about how much Pasadena City College meant to him, and how the community college allowed him to get a good education when his parents lost their jobs, making it impossible for him to enroll at the university he had originally planned to attend.

He noted that as he has appeared at campuses nationwide (and in many other public events), nobody cared about the leaked photos from the past, and that he was the victim in that incident in that his privacy was invaded.

"As PCC administrators attempt to shame me, they are casting a shadow over all LGBT students at PCC. They are sending the message that LGBT students are to be held to a different standard, that there is something inherently shameful about who we are and how we love, and that no matter what we accomplish in our lives, we will never be worthy of PCC’s praise," he wrote.

In a statement last week, the college apologized for the controversy and invited him back. "The board earnestly hopes that Mr. Black will accept its invitation to speak and to begin to heal the breach in our relationship with an alumnus whom the board greatly admires," the college statement said.

"Dustin Lance Black is an alumnus of Pasadena City College, class of 1994. He has distinguished himself as a film producer and champion of equal rights and protections for all regardless of sexual orientation. The Board of Trustees and college administration deeply respect Mr. Black, his work and his causes. The board also sincerely apologizes to Mr. Black for any actions that may have caused hurt."

Black has not said if he will accept the new invitation. If he doesn't accept, the college announced that there will be no outside speaker.

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