Condoleezza Rice will not speak at Rutgers University commencement May 18. In a statement released Saturday, the former secretary of state declared, “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.”
Rice’s withdrawal came after opposition from some students and faculty, who cited Rice’s association with the Iraq War and the George W. Bush administration’s use of torture on terrorism suspects. “By inviting her to speak and awarding her an honorary degree, we are encouraging and perpetuating a world that justifies torture and debases humanity,” student protesters wrote in an open letter.
Rice can now add kowtowing to protesters to her list of poor decisions.
Rice’s about-face is not novel. Criticism spurred Robert Zoellick, former head of the World Bank, to forgo Swarthmore’s commencement lectern last spring. When the actor James Franco withdrew from his 2009 UCLA commencement speech, citing a conflict “with me needing to be on location to begin pre-production on my next film,” some wondered whether it was actually student opprobrium that deterred him. Attorney General Eric Holder recently canceled his speech at a police academy graduation in Oklahoma City amid threats of protest – though he apparently had an important meeting in Washington. Indeed, if Rice deserves credit for anything, it is for honesty about her reasons for ducking.
She’s still wrong. “As a Professor for thirty years at Stanford University and as its former Provost and Chief academic officer,” Rice stated, “I understand and embrace the purpose of the commencement ceremony and I am simply unwilling to detract from it in any way.”
As someone who graduated from college not so long ago, I beg to differ. Commencement marks not only “a time of joyous celebration.” It also provides a ceremonial bursting of the school bubble in which many students have lived for most of their lives.
“Congratulations” is accompanied by “welcome to the real world.” And in the real world, not everyone agrees with you. You will have to listen to, and serve, people – in private as well as public positions of leadership – who have done things that make you ill. You will watch lavish praise and large sums be heaped upon those you deem unworthy. Learning to navigate such ambiguous terrain is more important than learning to mute.
Rice was an interesting choice precisely because she’s a controversial figure and the product of a calamitous time. Children entertain visions of a moral universe in which people who produce harm recognize the wrong they have done, and either apologize for it or are punished. In reality, people make horrid mistakes and go to their deaths defending the indefensible. Who knows what Rice might have discussed? Certainly, her decision not to speak is no apology; it’s an escape.
Controversy has its limits. Rutgers needn’t rush to book Donald Sterling in Rice’s stead. And students should continue to be free to protest and assert their beliefs.
But you shouldn’t shut someone up just because you don’t like him or her. There are few interesting graduation speakers who would not displease at least some members of a student body. Rice the politician may think that she has shielded Rutgers graduates from distraction on a day of celebration. Rice the teacher has actually helped them fail one of their first real-world tests.
Kessler is a Bloomberg View editor.