Friday, July 25, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Open minded thinking

The debate over Condoleezza Rice speaking at Rutgers isn’t about freedom of speech. It’s about diversity of thought.

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. After students objected, she decided to not speak at Rutgers´ graduation this weekend. (Anja Niedringhaus/AP/File)
Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. After students objected, she decided to not speak at Rutgers' graduation this weekend. (Anja Niedringhaus/AP/File)

When Condoleezza Rice backed out of her invitation to speak at Rutgers University's commencement this weekend, she unwittingly opened a can of worms that has academia and some alumni pointing at the institution, rather than the former secretary of state, for a debacle that is resonating well beyond New Brunswick.

The basic facts are well-known. What might never be known is what role backroom negotiations and political pressure had on Rice's decision to step aside - or on her invitation in the first place.

In any case, a small but very vocal group of students, along with a handful of professors who don't seem to understand what open thought truly means, have deprived the university's 2014 graduates of an opportunity to hear from a dynamic world leader, a minority woman who ascended the political ranks to become an inspiration for many.

I'm not here to debate Rice's merits, or her role in the Bush administration's war on Iraq. The larger issue is the subjugation not of freedom of speech, but diversity of thought.

In a time when there is an unprecedented sharing of knowledge, we, ironically, have an unprecedented ability to customize our news and social media interactions to suit our own interests, ideals, and political views. With the use of key words and filters, with little thumbs-up icons and algorithms that make note of everything we click or avoid, we can be assured of seeing only what hews close to our own point of view.

That capability seems to be at odds with higher education's traditional role of creating independent, critical thinkers, and opening up minds to the vast universe of thought. The university environment - the same one that in previous generations not only tolerated, but also seemed to engender, civil rights protests, antiwar rallies, and free-love sit-ins - has always advocated open debate and differing points of view.

So it's particularly abhorrent to me that Rutgers would succumb to a vocal few and not bend over backward to retain its first choice of speaker, no matter how controversial she might be. The fact is, practically every politician will have his or her fans and naysayers. Is there a better venue to parade such an individual than on a campus green?

"It seems to be a selection everyone is happy with," said Rutgers University spokesman Pete McDonough on the choice of former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean to replace Rice.

This is what troubles me. Not only is Rutgers taking the easy route, but its desire to placate the masses only feeds into the singularity of thought that will have dire consequences on our future.

I, for one, don't want our future politicians, researchers, authors, CEOs, and educators to be closed to differing opinions, or intolerant of anyone who happens to walk on the other side of a party line, or too willing to give a cold shoulder to someone deemed "controversial."

After Rice withdrew, I commented on Facebook that I was ashamed to be a Rutgers alumnus. An associate told me she was offended by my comment. A Rutgers grad herself, she said the university isn't to blame for the commencement fiasco, but that the protesting students are.

Someone else I associate with on social media noted that this incident was an example of democracy at work, that in the true spirit of higher education the will of the people should and did prevail. In fact, he said, the initial choice of Rice was undemocratic and motivated by political considerations. I'm not sure how 50 students out of a graduating class of about 10,000 constitutes "the will of the people," but I know that he and I will never agree on this point.

I'm embarrassed that Rutgers - the university that paid Snooki $32,000 to speak - tilted to a small minority of students and faculty, and that president Robert Barchi never met personally with Rice after the hue and cry erupted to reiterate the university's excitement of having her. He should have called a news conference to say that she was, is, and would be the university's first and only choice of speaker.

If I were a graduating senior, I'd be upset over this commencement bait-and-switch. As a thinking American, I worry about the implications of settling for someone who will make everyone happy.


Gary Frisch is president of Swordfish Communications, in Laurel Springs, and is a Rutgers University alum.

Gary Frisch
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