About The 200 Professors & Students Who Want To Ban Condi Rice From Speaking At Their College

April 17, 2014  |  

A fellow writer soul posed this question on Facebook about the appropriateness of speaking on topics, of which you are not an expert. As someone, who gets contacted from time to time to speak about topics, my response to that question was: it depends. I always make clear that I’m not an expert. I am however, an astute, researched and thoughtful writer (if you can’t toot your own horn, who will?), and I should have no problem defending and further articulating the points in the words that I put out into the world.

However, the question has no easy and right answers (there is also a worthy debate to be had about what constitutes an “expert” to begin with?). And that point recently occurred to me when I was reading this article about a large number of professors and students, who are protesting an appearance by former Secretary of State and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice.

According to the Minnesota Post, nearly 200 University of Minnesota professors and students have signed a petition demanding the college rescind an invite to Rice, who is scheduled to speak during the school’s 50th anniversary of the 1964 U.S. Civil Rights Act. The group of protestors have released a public letter, stating their reasons why they feel that Rice wouldn’t be an appropriate speaker for the forum. In short: her part in the controversial George W. Bush administration.

But more specifically:

We have no objection to Dr. Rice visiting our campus. Indeed, as strong advocates of the right to free speech, we welcome anyone – including Dr. Rice – into our community to engage in an open exchange of ideas.

In that very spirit of free expression, however, and in our commitment to the principles of truth and the common good that are inscribed above the entrance to Northrop Auditorium where Dr. Rice will speak, we object to the circumstances of this particular visit. While Dr. Rice is an accomplished African-American woman, the advancement of civil rights – the theme of this year’s lecture series – is not central to her legacy. Indeed, as a leading national security official during the entirety of the Bush administration, she bears responsibility for substantial violations of civil liberties and civil rights that were carried out in the name of prosecuting the War on Terror.

Dr. Rice is welcome to speak on the University of Minnesota campus, but let’s not ignore her record. As National Security Adviser in the critical period of 2001-05, Dr. Rice played a central role in the design and implementation of the Administration’s policies, which legitimized the use of torture by redefining it to include only practices so severe as to induce organ failure. By this logic, “enhanced interrogation techniques” that had previously been defined as torture, such as waterboarding, were no longer defined as such and became standard practice in the War on Terror. Since the end of her tenure, Dr. Rice has defended the use of torture and has not publicly distanced herself from these decisions that violated both US and international law and resulted in severe violations of human rights.”

The letter also outlined some other reasons against having the former stateswoman make a civil rights speech including the whopping 150k paid to Dr. Rice in speakers’ fee, which the signers argue is “also inconsistent with the civil rights movement’s emphasis on economic justice.” The professors and students ended their public letter by clarifying the point that while they welcome Rice to share her foreign-policy decisions and experiences, they just don’t think a civil-rights series is the right venue.

However the University’s PResident Eric Kaler thinks otherwise, partly writing a statement:

Our University must be a place that not only promotes, but aggressively celebrates free speech. The University of Minnesota must be this state’s headquarters for civil discourse and the boundless exchange of differing ideas.

I find the resolution particularly ironic given that Dr. Rice will be speaking about her personal story of overcoming adversity as an African American woman who faced discrimination growing up in the segregated and racist South. Her appearance on campus is part of the Humphrey School’s yearlong series about the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

That Civil Rights Act, and the struggle against racism in this country, has often been driven by powerful words that would not have been heard but for our American tradition of a robust and fiercely protected right of free speech and academic freedom.

I have opinions that sometimes differ from yours or others on our campus. That’s healthy, I invite that, and that’s the nature of civil discourse.

But we can’t have true academic freedom at the University of Minnesota by denying a stage to those we disagree with or disapprove of.”

It is no secret that I am not a fan of Condi Rice. Like other key players in the Bush Administration, it is of my personal opinion that they are largely responsible for some domestic and international policies, which have had some devastating effects on the global community as a whole (and this is me being diplomatic). However in the interest of fairness, I will admit to somewhat understanding the University president’s position on this.

Rice has managed to maneuver through some pretty nasty racism and segregation in 1960s Birmingham, Alabama on the road to becoming the first black woman to serve as the United States’ national security adviser, as well as the first black woman to serve as U.S. Secretary of State, respectably. And it is a journey, which she has written about previously in her memoir, Extraordinary, Ordinary People, particularly recalling the horrible tragedy of losing her friend Denise McNair, who she had known since kindergarden, during the infamous bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. There is a powerful narrative in all of that, particularly as it pertains to how black folks have managed to survive under radicalized oppression, which is worthy of being shared as part of the overall history of the civil rights movement.

But according to this interview Rice did with NPR, neither she nor her parents took active stances in the civil-rights movement. Instead they chose to shelter Rice from most of it by preaching the values of getting a good education as a means to getting around racism. According to the piece, Rice told NPR, “I would even say that my parents, and their friends in our community, thought of education as a kind of armor against racism,” she says. “If you were well-educated and you spoke well, then there was only so much ‘they’ could do to you.”

Yeah just ask President Obama, who has spent most of his two years defending himself from “special” attention (and I’m being generous here) than actually legislating and leading. And for me that is a huge problem with her speaking during a civil rights event. While Rice’s life story might be an entertaining anecdote, Rice’s lack of actual participation in the movement kind of sugar coats and bastardizes the real effort that those on the front line put in so that she, along with her family, could be silent and distant even as they took full advantage of rewards from the hard work of others during the struggle.

In that respect, it is hard to really understand what real insight to civil rights, particularly the civil rights’ struggles of today, Rice would offer. On what many have argued is the biggest civil rights battle of our generation: gay marriage, Rice has adopted a non-committal approach. And even if you are game for hearing Rice talk about the times she did not participate in civil disobedience in the name of civil rights, you have to wonder if that is worth the 150k price of admission? I mean I’m willing to bet that there are some disenfranchised students on campus, who could probably be better served by that money than Rice would be.  

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