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May 03, 2014 2:17 PM Condaleeza Rice withdraws from Rutgers commencement speech in wake of protests

By Kathleen Geier

Condi Rice was invited to be the commencement speaker at Rutgers this year. But Associated Press is reporting that she has abruptly backed out due to protests by some students and faculty over her role in the Iraq War. The AP article, which says that students were stagings sit-ins, notes that the decision to withdraw was Rice’s.

There are a couple of issues here. Protesters were calling Rice a “war criminal.” I have no opinion on that point because I don’t know what the legal definition of “war criminal” is, nor which of her actions they believe may have violated the law. However, I have no difficulty subscribing to the notion that the policies she supported during the Iraq War were reckless and heinous, and that she needs to be held accountable for them. The Rutgers community is totally within bounds in protesting her as a commencement speaker.

I wouldn’t necessarily feel that way if Rice were just an ordinary campus speaker. She’s an important figure and what she has to say has historical interest, at least. There could be some value in having her speak on campus in an ordinary capacity.

But a commencement speech is a special privilege, and there are excellent reasons not to honor someone who represents a legacy as disgraceful as the Iraq War. The fact that Rutgers was going to confer additional prestige upon Rice by granting her an honorary degree only compounds the offense.

As if that wasn’t enough, there’s this kicker: the university was going to pony up $35,000 for Rice’s speech. A publicly funded university has no business paying anyone that much money for a speech, I don’t care who it is — the Pope, Thomas Piketty, Beyonce, you name it. This is particularly the case for Rutgers, a school that has been battered by budget cuts. Moreover, as Paul Krugman pointed out earlier this week, New Jersey is facing a giant budget shortfall (around $800 million or so). The budget crisis has occurred because Team Christie cooked the fiscal books and projected a fake rosy scenario. Is anyone surprised?

No doubt the wingnuts will turn Rice’s withdrawal into yet another legend of conservative martyrdom. But there are many reasons why her exit is a good thing. Now, perhaps, Rutgers can focus on landing a speaker who not only will be more acceptable to the Rutgers community, but will also be less likely to gouge New Jersey taxpayers in the bargain.

UPDATE: On the issue of conservative hissy fits over “liberal intolerance,” readers might want to check out this recent Baffler post of mine. It concerns a type of intolerance few conservatives ever utter a peep about: the intolerance that occurs when the boss fires a worker because, for example, the worker drives a car with a bumper sticker of a candidate the boss doesn’t like. Or has a tie with a logo of a football team the boss doesn’t prefer. Those are perfectly legal grounds for firing in America and there’s not damn thing you can do about it. Where’s the conservative outrage about that?

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee

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