Facing opposition from students and faculty, former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice backed out of giving Rutgers University’s May 18 commencement speech, for which she would have been paid $35,000 and received an honorary doctoral degree.
Rice’s decision came just a few days after 50 Rutgers students staged a sit-in protesting her selection as commencement speaker, and calling on Rutgers to revoke the invitation. Protesters deemed Rice unfit due to her role in the Bush Administration, including her advocacy for the Iraq War.
“In this case with Condoleezza Rice, there was, we suspect, a political connection here at work here,” said Deepa Kumar, an associate professor of journalism and media studies at Rutgers.
Were Governor Chris Christie to run for president, as most expect him to do, Kumar said it seemed obvious that he might “tap Condoleezza Rice to be his running mate, and what better thing to do than to have the state university of New Jersey invite her to be commencement speaker and to [give her] an honorary degree? It was going to be a publicity event.”
A number of faculty members, including Kumar, “are investigating” how Rice came to be selected in what she described as an unusually secretive process. “We believe that this is politically motivated,” she said.
In a statement announcing that she would not speak, Rice said, “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’s community at this very special time.
“As a Professor for 30 years at Stanford University and as 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.”
This year, colleges across America will welcome commencement speakers who could be deemed controversial. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell (see: Iraq) is scheduled to speak at High Point University. P. Diddy (or Puff Daddy or whatever he’s going by these days) will be welcomed by Howard University. General Motors CEO Mary Barra will address the University of Michigan.
When Rutgers paid Nobel laureate Toni Morrison $30,000 to speak in 2011, it marked the first time in the institutions’ history that it paid a commencement speaker. That same year, the university also welcomed Snooki—from the reality show the “Jersey Shore”—and paid her $32,000.
For reference, Rutgers’ in-state tuition for commuter students is about $13,500 (and $25,000 for those living on-campus).
As American universities transform themselves from public service organizations to profit-seeking corporations, they are increasing their focus on branding and hype. Big name speakers—while not of significant cost to universities when compared to their other expenditures—are an obvious symptom of this.
“Colleges have become for-profit entities,” Kumar said. “The example of Snooki being invited to come to Rutgers absolutely falls into that general pattern.”
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