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Rice out, Kean and LeGrand in: the drama around Rutgers University commencement

Former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, left, was slated to speak at Rutgers for commencement. Former New Jersey Governor Tom Kean, middle, and former Rutgers football player Eric LeGrand, right, will now speak instead.
Former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, left, was slated to speak at Rutgers for commencement. Former New Jersey Governor Tom Kean, middle, and former Rutgers football player Eric LeGrand, right, will now speak instead.

Former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice was slated to appear at Rutgers University to give the commencement address this Sunday. In the wake of Rice being named the keynote commencement speaker, opposition by some began to build among mostly professors but also dozens of students. After months of petitions and protests, Rice decided that she did not want to take away from the day and stepped aside as the keynote speaker. No one from Rutgers directly reached out to Rice to do so and speaks to another aspect of this whole matter. Her withdrawal as speaker would only be part of the story regarding Rutgers University and their commencement.

The main impetus behind the petitions and protests was because of Rice's connection and involvement with the Iraq War under President George W. Bush's administration. The sit-in protests among a few dozen students at the end of April might have been the last straw as Rice was watching all the proceedings around her appearance.

For Rice,

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. 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. But that is not what is at issue here. 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.

Rutgers President Robert Barchi would continue to defend the university's selection of Rice and for Rutgers to protect free speech and academic freedom.

As Barchi has stated,

Whatever your personal feelings or political views about our commencement speaker, there can be no doubt that Condoleezza Rice is one of the most influential intellectual and political figures of the last 50 years.

Additionally, the university officially released the following:

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. 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.

The $35,000 fee for her speech will not be collected by Rice. She was also slated to receive an honorary degree. Former Secretary Rice is currently a faculty member at Stanford's Graduate School of Business after serving as Secretary of State from 2005 to 2009 and National Security Adviser from 2001 to 2004.

This would not have been Rice's first commencement speech. She has previously spoken at Boston College in 2006, where dozens of students and professors turned their backs to her and held up anti-Iraq War signs during her speech. She was met with a more receptive audience in 2012 when she gave a commencement address at Southern Methodist University. SMU also happens to be the site of the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum.

Getting a speaker like Rice was part of multiple years' efforts to land a marquee name for the university for its commencement especially with it taking place at High Point Solutions Stadium the last few years. Her speech was a couple years in the making after she was nominated to potentially speak at last year's commencement. Rice was chosen by a six member honorary degree committee, who were in charge of reviewing nominations. That committee was made up of: Barchi, then-Rutgers Executive Vice President Richard Edwards, Rutgers Board of Governors member Gregory Brown, Rutgers Board of Trustees member Margaret Derrick and professors Howard McGary and Laura Lawson.

Rice had a conflict last year and was reapproved to speak by the Rutgers Board of Governors this past February. But, there were early whispers of dissension by some members of the Rutgers board largely based on political reasons. The vote ended up being unanimous and without any public debate despite some worries around her selection.

Those inklings of dissension began to increase as the petitions began to show up. The petitions focused on Rice contributing to the misinformation provided to the public about the presence of weapons of mass destruction leading up to the Iraq War. Also, there were mentions of her support via the Bush administration's policy and use of waterboarding and other interrogations techniques. There have been multiple years of debate on both subjects and while a Democratically-led Congress could have led multiple investigations between 2007-2011 similarly to how a Republican-led U.S. House has held multiple investigations related to the attack in Benghazi in the last year and a half; nothing substantial was ever done in terms of punishments for Rice or any other Bush official linked to those subjects.

As the faculty resolution would outline,

An honorary doctor of laws degree should not honor someone who participated in a political effort to circumvent the law.

While removing the degree and fee would have likely not changed much in the complexion of the debate, there is no doubt this selection went from hardly known a year ago to a central issue of debate among those against her appearance.

As opposition continued, Barchi would even receive letters from incoming freshmen who were considering rescinding their commitment to Rutgers if Rice was the commencement speaker.

As Barchi would utter in response to the dissenting voices,

These are the kinds of exchanges that every great university welcomes. Like all vibrant intellectual communities, Rutgers can thrive only when it vigorously defends the free exchange of ideas in an environment of civil discourse.

While she was certainly a central player in questionable policy decisions of the previous presidential administration, Rice also has a pretty interesting back story. She grew up in the segregated South during the heart of the Civil Rights movement and would rise to become the first African-American woman to become U.S. Secretary of State. Her career at Stanford is also noteworthy.

Barchi would add before Rice's withdrawal,

Whatever your personal feelings or political views about our commencement speaker, there can be no doubt that Condoleezza Rice is one of the most influential intellectual and political figures of the last 50 years.

If this was not enough to add a shadow over what normally is a joyous time, the process of finding a replacement for Rice was not exactly seamless.

Rutgers was definitely under tight time constraints of less than two weeks to get a new commencement speaker.

After a couple days, former Governor Tom Kean was named to replace Rice.

As Barchi would voice,

Gov. Kean’s career as a public servant, educator and statesman speaks to the civility, integrity, and vision that we hope will guide our graduates as they pursue their careers or further their studies. Gov. Kean is a national role model as a statesman who built bridges across partisan, racial, ethnic and ideological divides for the sole purpose of improving the quality of life for the people he served. We are honored that he has accepted our invitation to address our graduates.

Kean served as governor of the Garden State from 1982 to 1990 and is probably the most popular Republican to serve as governor. He would also serve as President of Drew University for 15 years after his time as governor. That would be followed by serving as co-chair of the national commission that investigated the 9/11 attacks.

Kean will not be receiving any fees nor an honorary degree.

While selecting Kean to replace Rice is perfectly fine. However, the fact that former Rutgers football player Eric LeGrand might have also been offered the opportunity to be the commencement speaker provided an unsettling feeling to the aftermath of Rice deciding not to speak. LeGrand floated the idea that Kean was selected largely for political reasons and it would not be a stretch for that to be the case.

LeGrand and his bELieve campaign and Team LeGrand related to his recovery for an injury a few years ago on the field has served as an inspiration for student, alumni, and anyone in general. He has come back to Rutgers for special appearances including having his numbe retired. Certainly, students would much rather hear from him than Kean.

Even more meaningful is the fact that LeGrand finished his degree this past January.

When talking about this matter, LeGrand would exclaim;

I just want an explanation. I wish somebody would have given me a call and explained to me why. Then I can understand, but don't just leave me hanging.

LeGrand was reached out to shortly after Rice decided to not speak and was going to accept the offer two days later. But was called by Athletic Director Julie Hermann who said that Kean would be chosen as the speaker. It was a blindside move for LeGrand leaving a bad taste in his mouth. He had already planned out elements of his speech. Basically, he was given a fluff response to why he was not chosen.

He would add,

I just feel like I was offered something and it was taken back and I don't know the reasons why. I wasn't told the reasons why. I thought I was a good fit for the position to do it. I thought I could do the job, but I guess they thought different.

Looking to cover themselves and hopefully finally put an end the ongoing drama around commencement, Rutgers University and Barchi would officially let LeGrand know he too would be a commencement speaker.

For Barchi,

Eric LeGrand will speak at our commencement and personally receive his degree from me as a representative of the Class of 2014. It was never our intention that Eric would be the only speaker. We have resolved that miscommunication and are delighted to have him participate. Eric holds a special place in the hearts of the Class of 2014 and the entire university community. We are thrilled that he will be joining us on stage to make this special occasion ever more memorable.

After everything, Barchi was painting the whole thing as simply miscommunication regarding Rutgers' plan for its commencement in lieu of Rice withdrawing.

LeGrand would sum up the whole thing by stating,

"I'm just happy that I was able to work it out. Now I can get back to what I wanted to do and that's speak to the class because that's what it's all about, especially since they're close to my age and I really feel like I can give a good message to them."

Thus, it was far from a smooth process in setting up commencement for Rutgers University when it comes to its speaker. A small group comparatively to the Rutgers community as a whole ultimately impacted whom the commencement speaker would be in terms of Rice deciding to not speak to avoid taking away from the day. Petitions and protests are part of a democracy where all voices are meant to be heard. Unfortunately, the whole matter put a damper on the focus of what commencement should be about: celebrating the collegiate career of another class of students. Like a few matters connected to Rutgers in the last year, this will serve as another learning experience for the university.

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