Rutgers Students Oppose Choice of Condoleezza Rice as Commencement Speaker
On May 18th, my alma mater will confer another class of Rutgers University students with their baccalaureate, masters and doctoral degrees. Whereas this is a long held rite of passage signifying the accomplishments of the recipient over years of tireless work, one degree that was to be conferred that day stood in stark contrast to this honorable tradition. The Honorary Degree of Laws that was to be presented to former Secretary of State and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice as this year’s Commencement Speaker would have been a moral travesty. In the Bush Administration, Rice had oversight over some of the most egregious human rights violations during the Iraq War, which were widespread and are well-documented, followed by an occupation which lead to more than 1 million civilian deaths.
So what is a person, a student to do when they are presented with such a betrayal of values by the institution with which they will be inextricably linked for the rest of their lives? They could sit, smile, listen to her morally bankrupt words and go on with their lives. Or in one last statement to the Rutgers administration and community, they could take a stand, reflecting the truth that stirs in their souls, and not walk quietly off the stage with their degrees like lemmings.
On Monday, April 28th, that is exactly what they did. After numerous op-eds in their daily student newspaper, faculty resolutions at two campuses and various petitions opposing Rice’s invitation were dismissed by the administration, some 50 Rutgers students, about half of whom were Muslim students on campus, led a rally and sit-in protest at the Old Queens Building on the College Avenue campus in New Brunswick, NJ. They occupied the area outside the office of President Robert Barchi for more than 6 hours with almost a hundred more protesters in support chanting outside. It was not until they were denied food, water and access to bathrooms and threatened with arrest that they decided to leave, cheering in celebration on the way out. Amateur videos of the #NoRice campaign on social media show the energy as electric. And as momentum built on campus and media coverage grew, the actions continued – from banner drops from university buildings to a confrontation with President Barchi at a senate meeting where over 50 student protesters pressed the issue in public, compelling him to answer their questions. The pressure worked but not how anyone could have imagined. To the surprise of many and delight of even more, Rice pulled out of her scheduled commencement speech herself on May 3rd, less than a week after the sit-in.
Almost 30 years ago, Rutgers was the first public university to divest from Apartheid South Africa and then President Edward J. Bloustein was arrested for blocking the entrance to the Consulate of South Africa in New York City with 38 others. Conversely, President Barchi hid behind a veneer of free speech to cover the ulterior motive of opportunistic PR in an effort to attract funding to the university. This is not the legacy of the Rutgers I attended. Under Bloustein, Rutgers became one of the premier public universities in the country while retaining its moral integrity because it had a fiercely ethical man at the helm. The brave #NoRice student protesters preserved that moral courage. When Barchi’s time at the university ends, it will not be any legacy that is remembered except his readiness to capitulate to power, his dismissal of a former public official’s atrocious crimes against humanity, and his utter disregard for the legitimate concerns of all those in the Rutgers community affected by the Iraq War.
On May 18th, all Rutgers students will graduate with degrees but some will also graduate with heart, aligning their souls with the million murdered civilians whom they refuse to forget. To them, the beating of drums at graduation will represent the beating hearts of all those innocents whose memory they have kept alive with their courageous stand. And in decades to come, these are the graduates that will keep our society moving forward with moral progress and inspire others to do the same, not dead-of-heart bureaucrats, morally compromised leaders, and paper-pushing establishment twits maintaining the status quo. It is young, passionate folks walking into danger on principle, who represent the quiet yearnings of mainstream society that recognizes the correct course of action but is afraid to take a stand. In just two weeks, they set an example for generations to come and showed that a small group of committed students can have a formidable collective voice. We owe them a moral debt of gratitude for not letting our silence tacitly legitimize the honoring of a war criminal yet again.
Mohammad Ali Naquvi, JD, MS, MS has been a Muslim community organizer in the tri-state area for the last 15 years and is an advocate of intrafaith and interfaith-based social justice movements. He is an alumnus of the Graduate School-Newark at Rutgers University, Class of 2005, and lives in Robbinsville, NJ with his wife. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.