May 11, 2006 • Volume 14 Number 18

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice

Rice Invitation Stirs Campus Debate

Secretary of State to receive honorary degree, speak at graduation

By Office of Public affairs Staff

The May 1 announcement that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will receive an honorary degree and speak at Boston College's Commencement Exercises touched off an intense discussion throughout - and beyond - the University community, encompassing issues ranging from global politics to Catholic and Jesuit moral teachings.

In the days following the announcement, BC administrators, faculty, staff and students stated their views on the Rice visit both publicly and privately, some voicing strong objections - including a group of faculty members who signed a letter stating their opposition - and others applauding the choice of the secretary of state.

Rice will be one of four receiving honorary degrees at Commencement on May 22, along with Catholic Relief Services President Kenneth Hackett '68, Massachusetts Office of Refugees and Immigrants Director Pierre Imbert and Sister Elizabeth S. White, RSCJ, long-time faculty member at BC and Newton College of the Sacred Heart [see separate story].

At Monday's Faculty Day event, University President William P. Leahy, SJ, touched on the Rice visit, reaffirming his support and that of the University Trustees for inviting the secretary to speak and receive an honorary degree at Commencement.

"Given her personal life, the history she has, the way she lives her life and her service I think she has a great message to offer us about international involvement and public service," said Fr. Leahy, who acknowledged the disagreement over Rice's visit.

"It's also clear to me that she's made controversial decisions. She's made some judgments that not all of us would share. But I come back and say I think that as an honoraray degree recipient and speaker, she is most appropriate, and I regret that her nomination and selection for honorary degree has become tied up in anger around our nation regarding the Bush administration and policies concerning Iraq."

After a spirited discussion with faculty members in the audience, during which he was asked if he might reassess the invitation, Fr. Leahy said: "I'm not in favor of any reconsideration. She's coming here on May 22."

For many, the controversy over the secretary's appearance at Commencement has raised the question of a university's purpose in society, and how that mission should be reflected in an institution's events, ceremonies and rituals.

"The very nature of a university is to encourage the free interchange of ideas, however controversial, in order to promote among its students the powers of critical analysis and serious reflection," said University Historian Thomas O'Connor, whose tenure at BC has seen a roster of campus speakers and honorary degree recipients that includes a president (John F. Kennedy) and a vice president (George H.W. Bush).

"Dr. Rice is free to expound upon her ideas in her address to the graduates of Boston College. Her critics are free to oppose those ideas. The students, their parents and other members of the audience are free to listen and make up their minds."

Critics of the decision to invite Rice point to her role in implementing Bush Administration policies - especially related to the war in Iraq - they say run counter to BC's Catholic and Jesuit ideals. Many say they object specifically to her appearing at Commencement, rather than at a forum that would allow for discussion and debate of her views.

"The fact that there is significant anger and dismay over Dr. Rice's selection," said Assoc. Prof. Cynthia Young (English), director of the African and African Diaspora Studies Program, "illustrates the fact that her presence at Commencement unnecessarily politicizes and polarizes an event that should be about celebrating the achievements of our graduating seniors and saluting their families."

Amy O'Meara, a master's degree candidate in the Connell School of Nursing, wrote in an e-mail to the Public Affairs Office: "Rice is an amazing woman with a string of impressive accomplishments and skills. I wouldn't mind a seat next to her at a dinner party. I'd watch a '60 Minutes' interview with her. I do not want her representing me or my graduating class."

Those who approved of Rice as Commencement speaker and degree recipient cited her standing as a high-ranking representative of the US - albeit a controversial one - and in a position of major authority on international affairs.

Prof. Marc Landy (Political Science) said Rice's impending visit would be "one of the most august occasions" he had witnessed in his more than 30 years at BC. "It's totally appropriate for Boston College to have the sitting secretary of state and I think it bespeaks Boston College's place in American higher education that she would come. Condoleezza Rice has established herself as the most articulate spokesperson about American foreign policy. She has shown tenacity and courage and a magnificent 'articulateness' in explaining what others in the administration are perhaps not as good as explaining."

Landy's departmental colleague Assoc. Prof. Dennis Hale challenged the criticism of Rice's record as secretary of state. "She has helped to shape American foreign policy at a time of enormous and difficult challenges with judgment and courage. Now, two Muslim nations formerly in the grip of tyrants are being ruled by governments chosen in free elections; the terrorist organizations that were responsible for 9/11 are hiding in the hills; and there are hopeful stirrings among the democratic forces in the Middle East for the first time in generations.

"These are not guaranteed to be permanent accomplishments, and none has been achieved easily or without cost. But the sign of their importance is this: For the people who do not want reform in the Middle East, the administration which Condi Rice has served so ably cannot end soon enough."

Many in the BC community said that while they objected to Rice's world view and her role in the Bush Administration, her appearance on campus represents a recognition of BC's eminence as a major Catholic university, and offers an opportunity to reflect collectively on profound questions facing the US and the world.

Political Science department chair Prof. Susan Shell said, "The invitation of Condoleezza Rice draws welcome attention to BC's historic and ongoing role in the political life of the country. Her presence should enhance the serious understanding of civic life and world affairs that we try to cultivate in our students. This remains true, in my view, regardless of one's stand on specific policies of the Bush administration."

Justin Galacki, a Carroll School of Management senior who is president of the College Democrats of Boston College, questioned how a Catholic institution could honor Rice in light of the Vatican's condemnation of a war she has helped to prosecute. Nonetheless, he said, "to have one of the most influential people in the world on our campus is incredible for the school. I think it brings national recognition to the school and certainly serves to enhance the diploma that I will be receiving that day.

"While I think it is a tremendous opportunity and an honor to have her, I can understand the concern that many graduates will have with bringing someone who was one of the chief architects of a war that the Vatican has said is unjust.

"Politics aside, I am extremely excited to see someone who has such influence on world affairs. She is, arguably, the most powerful woman in the world."

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