Cold shoulder

Hannah Selinger - Raw Story Columnist
Published: Monday May 22, 2006

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When Condoleezza Rice took center stage at Boston College this week, I wonder what kind of reaction she was expecting. No one has ever accused Ms. Rice of being unintelligent and few would argue that her academic accomplishments are unimpressive. In her lifetime, after all, Rice has mastered much more than the piano.

But when Rice went to receive her honorary degree from Boston College on Monday morning, the students protested. "About 50 students stood with their backs toward the stage," the Associated Press reported, "as Rice was introduced to give her commencement speech." Maybe 50 is a paltry number compared with the hundreds who graduated, but in academia, where respect is paramount, it means something that some graduates turned their backs to the Secretary of State.

Just a short while before, the writer Steve Almond, who holds the position of adjunct professor of English at the college, wrote an open letter in the Boston Globe to William P. Leahy, the school's president. "Dear Father Leahy," Almond wrote. "I am writing to resign my post as an adjunct professor of English at Boston College. I am doing so--after five years at BC, and with tremendous regret--as a direct result of your decision to invite Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to be the commencement speaker at this year's graduation … But I am not writing this letter simply because of an objection to the war against Iraq. My concern is more fundamental. Simply put, Rice is a liar."

Almond went on to say that the Secretary of State knowingly mislead the American people regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction and the war in Iraq. He argued that her behavior set a poor model for "impressionable seniors."

The turmoil at Boston College comes in the wake of a similar--albeit more pronounced--disturbance at the New School University, where Senator John McCain offered a commencement speech last week. Graduates scolded the Senator from the audience, calling him a war criminal and criticizing his decision to sign off on the war in Iraq. The New School has always been known as the bastion of New York liberal thinking, but even for liberal thinkers, the reaction to last week's speech was surprisingly bad. When Bob Kerrey, the president of the New School, stood up to demand from his students some respect, they called him a war criminal citing a case during the Vietnam War where Kerrey supposedly bombed a civilian site, taking the lives of innocent men, women, and children.

So what's with all the anger? In the past, have political affiliations caused so much uproar in the quiet, tree-lined world of B.A.s and PhDs? Maybe, but things have now reached a boiling point. The most obvious fact available--that we knowingly invaded a country under false pretenses and that someone, somewhere was responsible for that action--brings to light Americans' worst fears. We have been lied to. We have been kept at bay with false information. We elected people who would later turn around and convince our citizens to die in a fictional war.

It has been the M.O. of this administration and the men and women affiliated with it to pass blame and responsibility on to the next unsuspecting sucker. Internal temperatures rose, and there went Paul Wolfson and Andrew Card, as well as a slew of other innies that seemed incapable of keeping a sinking ship afloat. Today, the national consensus is that these people are not doing a good job. I say this not only because of the obviously objectionable reactions to two high-profile commencement speakers, but also because the president's approval rating has reached an all-time low—and we still have two years left to grin and bear.

What seems unfortunate is that the call-to-arms from everyday people has proven completely ineffective in changing the way the system works. Steve Almond's article was eloquent and moving, and it feels unfair that his students will no longer benefit from his take on English writing and literature, but he was proving a point. It was not okay for Boston College to offer an honorary degree to a liar and it was not okay for them to overlook the criticism surrounding her simply because she was academically successful. Plenty of people succeed at renowned universities; not all of them turn out to be good people.

Academia is supposed to be the one place where knowledge and ethos are valued above all else. For that reason, academics are often pigeon-holed as liberal ostriches, too consumed with their intellectual holes to understand or process the world around them. But sometimes academics know exactly what is going on in the world around them. Steve Almond argued that a commencement speaker should be judged on the "content of one's character that matters here--the reverence for truth and knowledge that Boston College purports to champion."

Of course, despite Mr. Almond's resignation, Ms. Rice took the stage anyway. And despite the protests of the kids at the New School, Senator McCain finished his commencement address, too. In the end, what they and the reaction to them have demonstrated is that the American people—or at least a healthy, well-educated cross-section of the American people—detest the dishonesty and immorality that have come to signify the American government. That may be the most refreshing thing to come out of the academic year.