A criminal for commencement?

May 19, 2014

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was slated to be the commencement speaker at Rutgers University this year--but after weeks of protests by students and faculty against Rice and her record as an architect of war and repression, she withdrew from speaking on May 3. Deepa Kumar, an associate professor of Journalism and Media Studies at Rutgers University and author of Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire, spoke to SocialistWorker.org about the protests and the victory in forcing Rice to withdraw.

HOW DID this all get started? What prompted the protests?

WE LEARNED in February of this year that Condoleezza Rice was to be our commencement speaker after a Board of Governors vote.

We were all dismayed by this decision, not only because we played no role as faculty and students at Rutgers in this important decision, but also because we felt that Rice, as National Security Advisor and later Secretary of State, had lied to the American public about the Iraq war, a war that cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and over 4,000 U.S. soldiers. We also thought it wrong that Rice be awarded an Honorary Doctor of Laws degree given not only the Iraq war, but also her sanctioning of torture.

A group of faculty then began to circulate a strongly worded petition that asked Rutgers President Robert Barchi to rescind the invitation and withdraw the offer of an honorary degree. Hundreds of faculty signed on to this petition. Despite this, the administration would not budge.

A distinguished professor of history, Jackson Lears, sought out the opportunity to speak to the Board of Governors at their March meeting to talk about Rice's involvement in the torture regime on the assumption that perhaps they were not aware before they made the decision. He was refused an opportunity to speak.

Condoleezza Rice
Condoleezza Rice (Anton Rakitskiy)

He then circulated the speech he would have given, outlining Rice's endorsement of torture starting in 2002 and her refusal to change her stance despite her top aide's memo speaking out against torture. As Lears wrote:

The phrase "enhanced interrogation techniques" was the Bush administration euphemism for torture, which included waterboarding detainees, forcing them to maintain painful bodily positions, depriving them of sleep and food, and slamming their heads against the wall. In 2006, Rice's top aide Philip Zelikow warned the administration that such practices could be considered "cruel, inhuman, or degrading" and were therefore "prohibited" under U.S. law, "even if there is a compelling state interest asserted to justify them." Rice surely was aware of this legal memorandum by her right-hand man, who later concluded that the Bush interrogation techniques constituted "a felony war crime."

We did not want to honor a person with such a record, even though she was not solely responsible for torture or the Iraq war. We argued that the practices associated with the torture regime do not square with the values held at Rutgers. At the very least, we teach our students not to lie and not to harm others.

We further emphasized that there was a difference between a guest lecture (at which people could ask questions and offer critiques) and a commencement speech where there is no such opportunity. The political right unleashed a wave of attacks stating that we were trying to stifle free speech. Those of us associated with this campaign received a spate of hate mails and threatening voice mail messages at our work phones.

HOW DID the decision to invite Condoleezza Rice get made?

THE CURRENT president of the university formed a committee of six people (one of which was himself) to decide who our commencement speaker would be. This is highly undemocratic. Normally at Rutgers, about 20 faculty and students are involved in the process of choosing a commencement speaker, and they generally poll the members of the university to determine their thoughts and choices.

In contrast to this open process, President Barchi instituted a highly secretive process. This is a clear violation of our free speech rights and of a model of shared governance where students, faculty and staff are all involved in the process of decision making.

We suspected that this secretive approach was used because the selection of Rice was politically motivated. We had reasons to believe that Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, had suggested Rice's name to Barchi, on the assumption that he would tap Rice to be his running mate in his bid to run for president in 2016.

A group of faculty therefore put forward an OPRA request (Open Public Records Act) to see the communications from Barchi's office. While all the relevant e-mails and communications are yet to be released, Professor Bob Boikess, who carefully read the e-mails, showed that fully nine months before the Board of Governors vote, and before the decision was made public, Rice had been officially invited. There is even an e-mail where one of the people involved asked that news of Rice as commencement speaker be kept secret since this was not going to be publicly released till "February or April"!

So our right to governance and our free speech rights were violated in the manner.

BUT THE response to Rice withdrawing from the event has been framed as a violation of her free speech. What's your response to that point?

WHEN RICE released her statement explaining why she was withdrawing from Rutgers, it was covered by national and international media outlets. A quick Google search will lead to over 100,000 results. Rice is not someone who lacks "free speech." As a former Secretary of State, if she has an opinion that she wishes to articulate, it will be covered by the mainstream media.

So to suggest that somehow we censored her is ludicrous. And Rice herself has noted this, stating that free speech and the exchange of ideas is not what was at issue at Rutgers.

The right wing therefore switched gears, particularly in light of a spate of other commencement speakers withdrawing because of protests, and argued that these protests represent a rise of "liberal intolerance" on college campuses and an erosion of academic freedom. What is rather laughable, of course, is that it is people like Bill O'Reilly who are leading these charges about freedom of debate and expression.

The other line of attack is that powerful women have been singled out and disinvited--Ayaan Hirsi Ali at Brandeis, Rice at Rutgers, and Christine Lagarde at Smith College. The right has sought to spin this using feminist language.

What is noteworthy is that cherished liberal values--women's rights, free speech, academic freedom--are being used strategically by the right to not only deflect attention away from the actual records of these women (which led to the protests in the first place), but also to sow doubt among faculty and students. That is, when an issue is reframed using language such as "free speech" or "women's rights," the purported goal is to get liberal faculty and students to back away from campaigns to disinvite these speakers.

But it not just the right that made these arguments--members of the Obama administration and media outlets like the Daily Beast have echoed these arguments.

Damon Linker, writing for British news magazine The Week, asks, "Why do today's college students, professors, and administrators hate powerful women?" He then goes on to say:

Lord knows, I detested the Iraq War as much as anyone. But you know what? The world is an imperfect and morally complicated place, filled with people who regularly do things I consider wrong, stupid, misguided, foolish and unethical. That doesn't mean they should be excommunicated, ignored or banished from public life.

In other words, the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi's can be forgiven because people in public life regularly do things that are "wrong, stupid, misguided, foolish and unethical." Elias Isquith, responding to this line of argumentation, put it best when he wrote:

The implication is that the mistakes made by the last GOP president are more or less within the normal bounds of American politics, as if initiating an arguably illegal war and systematically flouting the Geneva Conventions is the same thing as cutting the estate tax or privatizing Social Security. It shouldn't be necessary to say this, but: They're not. And it's only in a political world where the lives of non-Americans are unconsciously considered less valuable that such thinking could survive."

WHAT HAPPENED next at Rutgers? Did the campaign of intimidation targeted at faculty and students stop the protests?

THANKFULLY, IT did not. By March, students had started to get involved, holding their own petition drive as well as meetings and debates on this issue. The campus newspaper The Targum carried articles on this issue, and many of us were involved in giving interviews to various local and independent news media outlets. Professor Rudy Bell was hosted by MSNBC.

At the end of the day, whether we won or lost, we saw this as an opportunity to educate our students and to more broadly raise awareness about U.S. foreign policy and the abuses of human rights.

Our union, the AAUP-AFT, also got involved in this fight. We conducted a poll where record numbers of faculty participated, and clear majorities voted against Rice. The New Brunswick Faculty Council and the Newark Faculty of Arts and Sciences passed resolutions demanding that Rice be disinvited; the Camden College of Arts and Sciences Faculty Senate issued a statement opposing the BOG's decision as well.

I should note though that there was some hesitation among a section of faculty and students about getting involved because of Rice's race and gender. Pushing back against the paralysis of privilege theory politics, we argued that a person's class position, and more importantly their class interests, are crucial in how we view them. Ultimately, even though Rice is likely to face racism (which we should oppose unequivocally), we argued that she cannot be given a pass on her role in the Iraq war and the torture regime just because she is a Black woman.

WHAT ULTIMATELY caused Rice to withdraw in May?

WE WERE very inspired by the Brandeis University decision to withdraw its invitation to the notorious Islamophobe Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The campaign picked up momentum after this, as people came to see that it was possible to have a speaker disinvited.

Students significantly increased their activist efforts after this point. In early May, they staged a sit-in at Old Queens (the name given to the top administrations offices), and later that week, they attended the Faculty Senate meeting in large numbers. Many of the students who came to the meeting had just finished Friday prayers, and they were joined by other campus activists in a united show of force. Backed up by the faculty, students one-by-one challenged President Barchi about his selection of Rice and Rice's record.

These two actions in early May were pivotal in that they received wide media attention and demonstrated clearly that both students and faculty were opposed to Rice coming to Rutgers. She got the message, and a day later, she announced that she was withdrawing her participation at our commencement.

This was a huge victory for democratic decision-making, and it showed that even though there is no antiwar movement today, people still remembered the Iraq war and the torture regime. Students and faculty showed that they were not going to be associated with war crimes and wanted to hold people like Rice accountable for their actions.

We held a successful teach-in on May 6 with over 200 students and faculty in attendance. Speakers at the teach-in noted that this victory was just the starting point, and that what was needed was to rebuild an antiwar movement. The other point made was that protest does matter, and that when we organize, we can sometimes win. We hope to use the activism from this mobilization to fight for a more democratic university and to push for shared collective governance.

SINCE THE Rice withdrawal, two more commencement speakers have opted out. What does this represent?

THIS SPRING, we have seen a wave of faculty and student activism around commencement speakers. Since our victory, Christine Lagarde, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) chief, withdrew from Smith College after hundreds signed a petition that charged the IMF as "a primary culprit in the failed developmental policies implanted in some of the world's poorest countries."

Robert Birgeneau, former chancellor of the University of California, withdrew as commencement speaker for Haverford College. Birgeneau had sanctioned police brutality against students in the Occupy Wall Street protests back in 2011.

A group of 40 students and faculty wrote Birgeneau a letter, demanding that he meet nine conditions before speaking at the Haverford commencement. These conditions included publicly apologizing for the use of police force and writing a letter to Haverford students explaining the events and what he learned from them. Rather than do this, Birgeneau withdrew.

The commencement speaker has become the symbolic means by which students and faculty are organizing their opposition to imperialism and neoliberalism. We are happy that we played a part in what is now turning into a new age of accountability where people who have done horrible things will no longer be honored by universities.

What activists need to keep in mind as they go forward is that the backlash from the right is swift and furious--and it is meant to intimidate and silence. For instance, I received a torrent of hateful Twitter messages after the right-wing Washington Examiner did a hit piece on me. I was branded a "racist" and a "bigot," and was told that my mother and I are both "pigs."

What seems to have baffled the staff writer at the Examiner is my argument that our opposition to Rice was a matter of principle, and that no matter which political party was associated with such actions, people like myself would have come out in protest. These insults and attempts at silencing have not in the past, and will not in the future, work on me. Nor should anyone else allow the bullies on the right to cow them into silence.

My colleagues have been accused of being racists for having denied "free speech" to a Black woman. The argument about free speech is a red herring, as I stated earlier, because the powerful in any society have unrestricted access to the corporate media, while dissenters are rarely allowed space in the mainstream.

But what we have shown is that our numbers matter. When we organize collectively, sometimes our voices are heard nationally and internationally. I am proud to have been one among thousands of students and faculty who dared to speak out and win.

Further Reading

From the archives