Nothing better illustrates the extent to which the United States has turned its back on the rule of law than when the likes of Condoleezza Rice are asked to address graduates and receive doctoral degrees honoris causa at university commencements. Ms. Rice — in my view a war criminal — was accorded those honors Saturday by the College of William and Mary, the second-oldest college in the U.S.
Unlike Rice’s other university appearances in recent years, there was not the slightest sign of unhappiness, let alone protest. Most of the graduating seniors were not yet ten years old in 2003 when Rice played a key role helping President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney launch a war of aggression against Iraq. So, the graduates’ ignorance may perhaps be understandable, but it does not speak well for their grasp of recent history.
It is far less excusable for the patrician leadership of William and Mary to have bestowed this honor on Rice. Did the news not penetrate their ivory tower that last year Ms. Rice was prevented from being accorded similar honors by irate students at Rutgers University, who were sickened at the thought that their commencement would be sullied by Rice’s presence?
One of the leaders of the “No Rice” campaign at Rutgers last year (a senior at the time), Carmelo CintrÃ³n Vivas, told Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! that the “students felt that war criminals shouldn’t be honored. … Someone who has such a tainted record as a public servant in this country should not … get an honorary law degree for trying to circumvent the law. … That’s not fair to any student graduating or not graduating at Rutgers University.”
He found “ludicrous” the familiar argument that Rice’s academic achievements outweigh her political positions: “If we look into a lot of international criminals and just bad people in history, a lot of them had great academic careers or great medical careers. … Your career is one thing, and the way you act as a person, as a human being, is another one. And that’s why we make this an issue about human rights.”
How to explain the contrast between the apathy prevailing at William and Mary and the awareness and activism at Rutgers? Perhaps one clue is the marked difference between the costs of attending. Tuition and fees are significantly higher at William and Mary, located in Williamsburg, Virginia. Another clue might be seen in the remarkable “tradition” of asking predominantly conservative Republican speakers to do the honors, and to get the honors, at commencement.
In contrast to the scene at William and Mary, this year’s commencement at Rutgers awarded an honorary doctorate in humane letters to Frances Fox Piven, a highly respected scholar and advocate for poor working people. Piven’s recent books include The War at Home: The Domestic Costs of Bush’s Militarism. Piven also won the Shirley Chisholm Award for “leadership toward social and economic justice.”