All week, the students of my alma mater, Rutgers University, have been debating the selection of former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as their commencement speaker. This morning, Rice bowed out, 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.”
Expectedly, ire on Facebook and Twitter is squarely directed at students and their stupidity:
But let’s examine the “distraction” Rice so fears. Yesterday, “nearly 100 students” gathered to question Rutgers president Robert L. Barchi on the choice of commencement speaker. And about half that number staged a sit-in in Barchi’s office days earlier in protest.
Rutgers has 65,000 students. So the active protesters essentially amount to 0.1% of the student body. Even if you account for those who are still offended at Rice’s presence—reportedly over her support for the Iraq war—but too lazy to turn up, it’s nothing Rice hasn’t seen before.
Why did she bail? Why didn’t she use the speech as a teachable moment? (I did email Rice asking for her comment and will update if she writes back.)
It’s easy to blame college kids and dismiss them as foolish liberals. But Rice doesn’t deserve a pass from the tough questions either. If anything, she could have addressed students’ concerns (and intolerance) head on. By canceling her appearance, she’s amplified the message of her opponents on campus—and created the biggest distraction of all.