The News: Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has declined to deliver the commencement address at Rutgers University after protests by some students and faculty, as The Root has reported.
“Rutgers’ invitation to me to speak has become a distraction for the university community at this very special time,” Rice said in a statement explaining her decision to back out.
Rice’s decision over the weekend followed a sit-in on campus and demands that the university disinvite Rice, citing her role in crafting the Bush administration’s case for the Iraq War. The university was to pay Rice $35,000 and give her an honorary doctorate.
On MSNBC’s Morning Joe Monday, co-hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski criticized the protesters as intolerant. Scarborough, a conservative, said, “Liberal speakers don’t get this sort of treatment.”
The Take: Universities have a difficult task providing a forum for open discourse on controversial topics without fomenting riotous backlash or seeming to endorse a particular position. In this increasingly polarized America, where too many of us consume news and information that only validate our own beliefs, Rutgers certainly had the right idea.
Few public figures today are more controversial or historically significant than Condoleezza Rice. But really, what graduating student would be gleeful to hear from a principal architect of America’s misleading rationale for the Iraqi invasion, tragically incompetent postwar plan, and embrace of torture?
After all, the young people in the class of 2014 have lived more than half their lives in a nation at war.
This spring we have seen a few controversies over commencement speakers. The backlash over Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs’ scheduled speech at Howard University smacked of elitism and ignored other dropouts-turned-icons, such as Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, who delivered memorable remarks at their former schools. The hubbub over Michelle Obama’s graduation address in Kansas was just pettiness.
Opposition to Rice was more substantive, much as the outrage at Wellesley College over the planned speech of first lady Barbara Bush in 1990. Students at the all-female school complained that Bush, a college dropout known only as a wife and mother of a political family, didn’t represent the kinds of careers they were trained to pursue. Her appearance contributed to an important discussion about the definition of feminism.
Unfortunately, we couldn’t have hoped for the same from Rice because she continues to shill for the Bush foreign policy years after it has been almost entirely discredited. While she lacks the arrogance of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, she makes similarly self-serving, delusional arguments.
Her latest attempt, in a recent Washington Post op-ed on the Ukraine conflict, also landed a broadside hit on President Barack Obama’s policies:
The United States must restore its standing in the international community, which has been eroded by too many extended hands of friendship to our adversaries …. Continued inaction in Syria, which has strengthened Moscow’s hand in the Middle East, and signs that we are desperate for a nuclear agreement with Iran cannot be separated from Putin’s recent actions. Radically declining U.S. defense budgets signal that we no longer have the will or intention to sustain global order, as does talk of withdrawal from Afghanistan whether the security situation warrants it or not. We must not fail, as we did in Iraq, to leave behind a residual presence.
I agree with MSNBC’s Scarborough that her achievements, as first black female national security adviser and U.S. secretary of state, more than qualify her as a worthwhile speaker. And from her connection to the 1963 Birmingham, Ala., church bombing to her role during the second Bush administration as perhaps the most powerful woman in the world, Rice’s life offers endless material for debate about race, gender and foreign policy.
Racial equality is defined in part by blacks gaining the right to be mediocre and still succeed, or to excel in ways that challenge black orthodoxy. Rice fits the profile for the latter but deprives us all with only blithe mentions.
These are the conversations we need to have, and a university provides the few remaining settings for them. If only Rice were truly willing to participate.
The News: The U.S. Department of Education for the first time has released the names of colleges under investigation by the Office for Civil Rights for alleged mishandling of sexual-assault cases on campus. The list of 55 schools includes some of the most prestigious institutions in the U.S., and several with large African-American enrollments, such as Michigan State University, Ohio State University and Temple University in Philadelphia.
The effort is part of a new White House rape-prevention campaign in response to a recent report (pdf) by a presidential task force that found 20 percent of female college students, or 1 in every 5, are victims of “attempted or completed sexual violence,” while just 1 in 8 women report the incidents.
In a separate survey at historically black colleges and universities, 14 percent of women in 2008 said they were sexually assaulted on campus.
The government investigations are to determine whether the schools violated Title IX of the 1972 law, which prohibits gender discrimination at schools that receive federal funding.
The Department of Education is asking colleges to survey their students about sexual assault and other “campus climate” issues.
The Take: Just about every young man would say he abhors sexual violence against women. Probably each one would swear never to force himself on a woman. And yet.
For rape and other sexual assaults, the highest rate of victimization exists among people ages 16 to 19, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Blacks usually are more than twice as likely as whites to be victims.
At colleges, the reality is even more fraught. The fact is, campuses are incubators for men’s abuse of women.
I’ve shared the data before that almost half of college-age men are sexually abusive: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 43 percent of men admit to using “coercive behavior to have sex”—ignoring a woman’s objection, using physical aggression, forcing intercourse—“but did not admit that it was rape.”
Clearly, some guys are lying, and others are in denial. It is also evident that too many other young men unwittingly adopt the behavior because of an enabling culture among peers that grows more permissive when they drink alcohol. Too many guys do not recognize early signs of problem behavior (as simple as a man’s tendency to raise his voice at women more often than at men), ignore it or even laugh it off.
Harvard University, one of the schools under federal investigation, has received roughly 100 assault complaints in the past three years. A 2008 survey at Princeton University found that 1 in every 6 women had experienced nonconsensual sexual contact.
An anonymous female Princeton student described the “rape culture” in the student newspaper:
But I do not hate my perpetrator. … Nor do I hate the eating clubs or varsity sports teams or the Greek system, institutions that are sites of sexual assault on college campuses across the nation. … I hate the culture—the rape culture—that creates otherwise decent people who do completely indecent things. … This culture exists here, at other Ivies, at other colleges and outside of college environments entirely. Beyond the eating clubs, rape culture already manifests itself elsewhere on campus. There is no stereotypical picture of where, or to whom, sexual assault occurs or does not occur.
Our society urges women to go to extremes to avoid becoming victims but imposes fewer expectations on men to avoid becoming perpetrators. Women are drilled about monitoring their surroundings, the company they keep, and the presence of alcohol and drugs. Many men, on the other hand, still believe that all they must heed is “No means no,” which doesn’t come close to governing their behavior in a range of potentially dangerous situations.
This White House initiative isn’t the first designed to combat sexual assault, of course, but hopefully it will be novel in directly confronting patriarchy. And it is past time for men to get in other men’s faces about this. Otherwise, it may be for naught.
Corey Dade, an award-winning journalist based in Washington, D.C., writes The Take and is a contributing editor at The Root. He appears on MSNBC and CNN and contributes to NPR. He is a former NPR correspondent and political reporter at the Wall Street Journal. Give him your “take” on Twitter.
Corey Dade, an award-winning journalist based in Washington, D.C., is a former national correspondent at NPR and political reporter at the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe and other news organizations. Follow him on Twitter.