Commentary: Obama gets it wrong on Rutgers' speaker protest

3 x 2 Bill Moyers President Obama at Rutgers
FILE - In this May 15, 2016 file photo, President Barack Obama, right, laughs as he sits with Bill Moyers during Rutgers University's 250th Anniversary commencement ceremony in Piscataway, N.J.

By Charles G. Häberl

President Obama struck a discordant note when he raised the specter of campus "political correctness" and attacked the "fragility" of the student body at Rutgers' commencement on Sunday.

Like many others attending the commencement, I was inspired and enthralled by Obama's address to the Class of 2016. However, as a faculty member who was supportive of the principled, student-led opposition to the selection of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as the 2014 commencement speaker, I feel obliged to address some of Obama's regrettable misperceptions.

The movement opposing Rice as commencement speaker was never about denying her a platform to speak. That would have been an impossible goal. As one of the most powerful women in the history of American politics, Rice enjoys a level of influence and publicity today that few if any of the students opposing her selection will ever attain.

Instead of simply trying to silence a voice they found objectionable, the students opposing Rice's forum raised relevant issues about the selection process and proposed an alternative debate forum that could have provided for critical engagement.

An initial objection to Rice's selection was to the usurpation of a committee formed explicitly for that purpose, with representation from the student body and the faculty, as well as the upper echelons of the Rutgers administration. Rutgers President Robert Barchi abolished this long-standing, democratic, and transparent institution in favor of appointing his own consultative committee, which he himself chaired.

At the time that Rice was invited to speak, the salaries of Rutgers' faculty had been frozen for several years due to alleged unavailability of funds. Despite this lack of funding for academics, Rice was offered $35,000 to come to Rutgers. In that year, two languages - Bengali and Yoruba - were abolished from the Rutgers curriculum. The funds offered to Rice would have been sufficient to allow my department to continue offering these languages to our students.

Finally, in addition to a platform to share her opinions and experiences with us, Rice would have received a doctorate of laws and the honor of delivering the keynote address.

Students and faculty like myself objected to Rice receiving this honor, submitting that her professional history as national security adviser and secretary of state during the administration of President George W. Bush betrayed these values, most particularly in the realm of law. Rice bears a large share of the responsibility for endorsing the bogus evidence that led the American people, our government, and the so-called coalition of the willing into war in Iraq, which ultimately led to the deaths of more than 4,400 American service people and 174,000 Iraqis.

Additionally, students noted that the administration Rice was part of was the architect of the post-9/11 surveillance state, our international network of "black site" detention centers, and the controversial "enhanced interrogation techniques" that have forever besmirched the reputation of the United States in the global arena. There is no honor in awarding a doctorate of laws to an individual who was part of an administration that showed such a reckless disregard for both domestic and international laws.

Commencement speakers do not receive the "tough questions" Obama proposed Sunday. There is no opportunity to "hold their feet to the fire" or "make them defend their positions." By reducing the complex and nuanced positions of the campus community members opposing Rice's selection as speaker, her hefty fee, and the awarding of an honorary degree to yet another stale debate about campus political correctness, Obama has unfortunately done a grave disservice to the truth.

Charles G. Häberl is an associate professor and the chair of the African, Middle Eastern, and South Asian languages and literatures department at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. haberl@rutgers.edu

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