Alumni, students, faculty and administrators at the University of Minnesota can take considerable pride in the mission statement that guides the institution.
The university is “dedicated to the belief that all people are enriched by understanding” and it “strives to sustain an open exchange of ideas” in an “atmosphere of mutual respect, free from racism, sexism, and other forms of prejudice and intolerance.”
But at least some students and faculty appear to flinch from that noble mission if the ideas fail to fit a certain political philosophy. In that case, throw mutual respect out the window and cue the intolerance.
It’s been tempting to ignore the campus kerfuffle over today’s appearance by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who was invited to speak by the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. Two developments in the ongoing protest, however, deserve comment.
The first is the less worrisome. Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), which failed in its attempt to pressure the U to rescind the invitation, informed university police in a letter that a “truly dangerous” person was coming to campus. The letter goes on to give a physical description of Rice and says, “There is probable cause to believe Dr. Rice has been involved in massive criminal activity.”
The missive likely achieved its objective — drawing modest news media attention — but it can otherwise be written off as a harmless, albeit creative, publicity stunt.
It’s more troubling to read the letter of protest signed by 182 faculty members, stating that Rice has every right to visit campus and “engage in an open exchange of ideas.” The faculty members have their own definition of “open,” however, and they find Rice, the first African-American woman to serve as secretary of state, a poor choice to discuss civil rights as part of the Humphrey School’s Distinguished Carlson Lecture Series marking the 50th anniversary year of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“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.”
In other words, Humphrey School, find an “accomplished” speaker we agree with next time. One has to wonder if the same 182 faculty members would protest an appearance by President Obama over his use of drones or the fact that the Guantanamo Bay detention center remains open today.
The letter goes on to cite another point of contention in the Rice flap — the $150,000 speaking fee she will receive. “Not only is the oversized payment a dubious priority in a time of economic hardship and austerity, it is also inconsistent with the civil rights movement’s emphasis on economic justice.”
Even while suggesting that the money would be better spent alleviating “hardship” at the U, the faculty members conveniently fail to mention that the fee is being paid from donor funds designated for the lecture series — not from tuition or tax dollars.
Not all of the reaction to the Rice visit signals the death of intellectual openness on campus. In a 122-21 vote, the University of Minnesota Senate rejected a resolution to condemn the appearance. The Minnesota Daily student newspaper also called for open dialogue, as did President Eric Kaler. And U Regent Laura Brod made an excellent case for diversity of thought on these pages.
For legitimate reasons, including those outlined in the commentary on the facing page, Rice is a polarizing figure whose legacy will be debated in some quarters for decades to come. Her record should be fair game, and her role in the complex War on Terror is worthy of academic scrutiny.
To that end, her university appearance can be an educational experience. It’s our hope that Rice will take the opportunity to reflect not only on her upbringing in the segregated South during the civil rights movement, but also on her role in the Bush administration and the importance of America’s global leadership in promoting the same freedoms black Americans fought to win.
The late Curt Carlson established the lecture series to honor his friend Hubert Humphrey. Carlson was deeply influenced by public lectures as a young man, including one focused on civil rights that served as the foundation for his friendship with Humphrey.
The anniversary lectures on the Civil Rights Act — and the invitation to Rice — honor the legacies of both Carlson and the Humphrey School’s namesake.