Less than a week after Condoleezza Rice’s lecture, several student groups organized a forum that brought people together to discuss some of the controversies, questions and opportunities arising from her invitation to speak on campus. One of the speakers at the forum observed that we would not have had such an event unless the University of Minnesota had invited Rice.
We, the faculty advisors to the student groups that organized the forum, could not agree more. But we also lament that the Humphrey School of Public Affairs placed us in the unfortunate position of having to react in this fashion in order to have the kind of open exchange of ideas that universities are supposed to promote. Speakers at the forum made a number of observations that we believe point to some potential areas of agreement between those who supported the invitation to Rice and those who objected to it. This common ground provides a basis from which our university community might rethink its terms of engagement with public figures.
One issue discussed was the $150,000 honorarium that was paid to Rice. As many people have pointed out, private funds donated by the Carlson Family Foundation, not public money, covered this princely sum. As long as wealthy donors are willing to pay these honoraria, some argue, universities should offer them, since this is the price of doing business in a market in which celebrity speakers demand top dollar. That is certainly a legitimate perspective on this matter. But we contend that this stance jeopardizes our integrity as a public university. Choosing to participate in this market gives undue influence to wealthy donors in determining whom we honor with a platform at our university. We should also think carefully about the implications of turning public universities into spaces where famous people receive outsized honoraria. This comes during an era when growing wealth and income inequalities tarnish the social landscape and make a mockery of the ideal of equal opportunity, and access to higher education for millions of students is made more difficult in the face of rising tuition and debt.
Another issue that requires further reflection is how the University publicizes events with public figures. The University’s publicity for Rice’s talk read as if written by a public relations firm, not by an institution of higher learning. The language is celebratory, glossing over many controversies related to Rice’s tenure in office. Rather than whitewashing the troubling records of public figures who speak at our University, we should embrace the controversy as an opportunity to generate the sort of respectful debate on campus that is so rare in public life today.
Unfortunately, Rice’s public lecture did not provide a venue for such an exchange. She spoke for only about 20 minutes and answered a few softball questions from Humphrey School Dean Eric Schwartz. She took no questions from the main audience. We deserve more than that — especially for $150,000. Public figures who visit our campus should expect and welcome critical dialogue and hard questions. If they are unprepared to do that, then we should reconsider any plans for honoring them in a forum. This reflects the heart of what a public university’s function is in society. After all, there are plenty of venues where celebrities regularly speak to silent audiences in return for extravagant private payment. Prominent public figures and their benefactors do not need a public university for that.
Of course, Rice is not the first public figure to receive a large honorarium, have her record glossed over and not be required to answer tough questions. We agree with critics who observed that some of those opposed to Rice’s visit would probably not have raised their voices if, for example, Hillary Clinton had received a similar invitation. We should not apply one standard to Republicans and another to Democrats. Instead, the University should be explicit about our terms of engagement with public figures so that their visits align with our mission. Moving forward, we propose that the University set a cap on honoraria, consult with faculty experts and student leaders about publicity for these events so that we do not distort the record of public figures, and require that events be structured so that we can ask tough questions. Of course, if we do this, some public figures will choose not to speak on campus. But we consider this a small price to pay for upholding the integrity of our public university.