Rutgers 2015 Commencement Speaker Campaign: In a Nutshell

by: Ruqaiyah Shehabuddin

Rutgers’ 2015 keynote commencement speaker will not be announced until after the Board of Governors convenes in Newark on Thursday, April 2, New Brunswick Today reported, earlier this month.  The article stated that some speculate that the decision to withhold this information from faculty and students is a calculated move to prevent a controversy like last year, when students protested former Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice as the choice for 2014 keynote speaker. Commencement speakers have been made public knowledge as early as February in previous years.

Last year, the issue arose when the school newspaper, The Daily Targum issued an editorial condemning Rice as the choice for speaker immediately after her selection was announced. The Targum continued to publish opinion pieces on the topic for the next several weeks. The Rutgers University Student Assembly hosted a debate and called for a vote on whether students should support Rice as the speaker, with the vote coming in support of Rice, reported New Brunswick Today.

The controversy came to a turning point when students protested “with a storming and occupation of the school’s oldest building, the Old Queen’s administrative offices, on April 28.” Students were threatened with arrest and suspension when they failed to vacate the building.

A few weeks later, the New Brunswick Faculty Council passed a resolution that condemned the Board of Governors for choosing Rice, saying she “…played a prominent role in the [Bush] administration’s efforts to mislead the American people about the presence of weapons of mass destruction” and the school “should not honor someone who participated in a political effort to circumnavigate the law,” said New Brunswick Today.

The controversy gained national attention, with CNN reporting Rice’s eventual decision to decline from speaking. She is reported to have declined via Facebook saying “commencement should be a joyous celebration for the graduates and their families. Rutgers invitation to me to speak has become a distraction for the university community at this very special time.”

After Rice declined to speak, students at the school were reported to have been upset and even discussed a petition to get Rice rehired to be the speaker, CNN reported.

After the debacle, New Brunswick Today published an article in October that the controversy over Rice led to Rutgers changing the way the commencement speaker selection process works. “A major complaint of protestors was the lack of democracy provided to the university community in the commencement speaker selection process,” reported the article.

In September of 2015, the University replied to this call, when the University Senate agreed that it had formed committees that “would consist of faculty, administrators, student leaders, staff, and alumni, and the executive secretary of the senate.”  The Senate Committee recommended 11 changes to the selection process, but none were to take effect for the 2014-2015 academic year.  Members of the executive Committee did not reveal to New Brunswick Today, however, why the speaker for this year would not be revealed until April.

“Blatantly hiding the decision until April is ridiculous and unheard of. The administration is completely disconnected from the student body and provides no outlets for students to voice their concerns-actually doing everything it can to ignore them,” said Amani Al-Khatahtbeh, who spoke out against the decision to not reveal the commencement speaker until April, played an active role in the protests against Rice, to New Brunswick Today.

Two graduating seniors at Rutgers University, Rachel Bernstein and Natalia Del Rio have capitalized on this call to make the process more democratic, with Bernstein telling the Daily Targum “I think instead of saying who we don’t want, we can all come together and say we want this person.”

Bernstein and Del Rio have started a social media campaign to have Bill Nye, the Science Guy be the keynote speaker at this year’s commencement, , the Daily Targum reported.

Bernstein explained her choice in Bill Nye saying “I grew up watching Bill Nye’s television show in class…he taught us a lot at a very young age…and he’s still around and in our lives.” The campaign involved the use of social media platforms under the hashtag #BowTie4BillNye, and called upon students to wear a bowtie to show their support.

Earlier this month, RUTV picked up the story, expressing enthusiasm at students raising their voice in this collective manner, and showing support to the Bill Nye campaign.

As for the rumors suggesting that Bill Nye was going to be keynote speaker this year, no one from his Seattle-based labs was able to confirm or deny the speculations, New Brunswick Today reported.