Over the weekend Condoleezza Rice announced that she would be withdrawing as commencement speaker for the upcoming Rutgers University graduation ceremony after students and teachers protested Rice’s selection as speaker and recipient of an honorary degree. Even if you didn’t follow the story, you probably don’t need the details filled in: she is among the best possible candidates to give such a speech, but she worked for George W. Bush; end of story.
The graduation ceremony she was scheduled to appear at coincides with the tenth anniversary of my own graduation from Rutgers. That decade has instilled in me a great sense of apprehension any time Rutgers is mentioned in the news. That’s not to say there is no good news coming out of the school; the construction of a new Hillel building is a sign that the Jewish community at the school remains numerous and committed to Jewish life on campus–despite the anti-Semitic harassment they’ve experienced as the school shrugs its shoulders.
The combination of a proud Jewish community and a pusillanimous school administration (admittedly, no different from most liberal arts colleges) has also inspired the Jews at Rutgers to make their voices heard. One of the more famous examples of this took place while I was a student there, in 2003. An extremist Palestinian “solidarity” group was scheduled to hold its annual event on campus. The New Jersey chapter’s leader gave interviews ahead of the event, in which she explained that murdering innocent Jews in Israel was merely part of a resistance campaign and others had no right to judge the methods of the Palestinian group’s protest, as a contemporaneous piece in Haaretz recounted:
The trouble began when a coalition of pro-Palestinian organizations decided to hold their annual convention at Rutgers in the second week of October. Last year, the event was held at Michigan University, and the year before that at Berkeley. The host organization was New Jersey Solidarity, which is considered one of the most extreme organizations in the coalition. One of the group’s leaders, Charlotte Kates, for instance, told The New York Post that “Israel is a colonial settler apartheid state” that has no right even to exist, and against which suicide attacks are justifiable. In another interview, with The New York Times, she said: “It is not our place in the United States to dictate the tactics Palestinian groups use in the liberation struggle.” The organization also hung posters around the campus in March that declared: “From the River to the Sea, Palestine Will be Free.”
There was some protest even outside the student community–genocide is, after all, frowned upon. The group succumbed to internal divisions–apparently in part over an argument about inviting Hamas–and eventually relocated by choice, but the New Jersey chapter tried, unsuccessfully, to hold a new solidarity event on campus. In the interim, led by the Rutgers Hillel, the Jewish community on campus mobilized and held a rally that drew four thousand supporters.
Quite apart from anti-Semitism, my alma mater has been in the news more recently for the horrible and tragic case of the sexual bullying of a gay student who subsequently committed suicide, as well as last year’s scandal over an abusive basketball coach. How I long for the days when Rutgers national-media headlines were more along the lines of Sports Illustrated’s feature on its football program, headlined “Why Can’t Rutgers Ever Win?”
I should also note that although Rutgers had its share of bias in the classroom (as does any university), the journalism program I attended was utterly devoid of it. My teachers were uniformly excellent, and I left Rutgers convinced that my decision to attend (I had actually transferred in mid-freshman year) was the right one. I still feel that way, and I have spent my years since graduation recommending the school to anyone who asks my opinion. That won’t stop either.
But I’m left wondering if it’s the same institution I left merely a decade ago. Jewish life continues to flourish at the school. But intellectually, I can imagine parents reading about the Rice controversy and wondering if the professors at such a school can be trusted to impart a passable education. Rice grew up in segregated Birmingham and went on to become the first black female secretary of state. On top of that, she has a well-known expertise in, and passion for, education policy. So you would be hard-pressed to find a better choice for commencement speaker.
But she served the Bush presidency when this nation was at war, and that is too much for the academic left. The Rutgers I remember had plenty of acrimonious debate, but that’s far better than to be ruled by heckler’s veto (which was avoided this time, as Rice withdrew so as not to distract from the students’ graduation celebrations, but was still argued for by the professors). I also don’t remember my instructors being such intellectual cowards. Perhaps I just took the right classes. I suppose students just have to hope they do too, though that’s not a line I imagine the Rutgers administration wants to put on a brochure.