Despite the media’s fascination with racial issues, many news organizations have failed to understand the importance of two cases involving black women whose political views got them bounced from providing words of wisdom to graduating students at two universities.
Condoleezza Rice, the great-granddaughter of an Alabama sharecropper and one of the most accomplished black women in the U.S., canceled her scheduled commencement address at Rutgers University in New Jersey because of faculty and student protests about her role in the Bush administration. “Commencement should be a time of joyous celebration for the graduates and their families,” the former secretary of state said in a statement. “Rutgers’ invitation to me to speak has become a distraction for the university community at this very special time.”
Many stories emphasized Ms. Rice’s fee of $35,000 — about $3,000 more than Rutgers’ 2011 speaker, Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi of MTV’s “Jersey Shore.”
I have taught for nearly 20 years at three left-leaning college campuses. As an educator herself for 30 years, Ms. Rice understands the intolerance of university liberals who talk the talk of the marketplace of ideas but rarely walk the walk.
In an editorial, The Star-Ledger of Newark, New Jersey, certainly didn’t get the Rutgers controversy. “It’s been the kind of academic discussion college campuses used to be known for,” the newspaper wrote.
No, it wasn’t; it was a clear case of censorship. At least Kristen Soltis Anderson of The Daily Beast, unlike the protesting faculty and students, did some research about Ms. Rice’s speeches. Ms. Anderson found a distinct lack of politics. Instead, Ms. Rice brought a mixture of experience, humility and wisdom. “Did the students and faculty think she’d get political in her commencement address?” the writer asked. “They should look at her past speeches — and realize it’s a shame they won’t hear her inspiring story.”
The rejection of Ms. Rice stands alongside that of Brandeis University and its decision to cancel an honorary degree for a feminist because of her views against Islamic treatment of women and girls.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali-born activist, has fought such practices as genital mutilation. An online petition drew attention to her negative comments about such practices in Islam after which Brandeis decided to yank her from the commencement. Ms. Ali said the university simply wanted her silenced.
Juliet Lapidos of The New York Times disagreed. In an editorial about these cases, she wrote that “the protesters’ message was not: We don’t want you to taint our ears with your opinions. It was: We don’t want to celebrate your opinions.”
Nevertheless, if you look around college campuses, the list of commencement speakers has a distinctly liberal tilt, according to a poll from Campus Reform, which found that Democrats outnumbered Republicans by a margin of 2-to-1 on this spring’s commencement podiums. The survey, conducted last month, reported that 56 Democratic officeholders, appointees and operatives, including 10 out of 16 Cabinet officials in the Obama administration, were slated to speak at graduation ceremonies, while 26 Republicans were scheduled to deliver speeches, a number the Rice cancellation cut to 25.
A spokesman for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which advocates free speech on college campuses, lamented this apparent liberal bias.
“There seems to be no room on a university campus for people who might have controversial things in their past or who are involved in controversial things currently,” Robert Shibley told the Chronicle of Higher Education.
I couldn’t agree more. Otherwise, students will have to navigate through much of the same muck they endure during their college years.
• Christopher Harper is a professor at Temple University. He worked for more than 20 years at The Associated Press, Newsweek, ABC News and “20/20.” He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @charper51.