Straight Outta Brumfus: the Eternal Dingbattery of Rutgers

by Tim Cavanaugh

By this point I presume even Condoleezza Rice has moved on from the Rutgers commencement speech debacle, but as a Scarlet Knight myself, I have a few notes (beyond just noting that I can now claim moral outrage, rather than just stinginess, as my reason for not giving money when the alumni association comes calling):

1. Of all the George W. Bush administration alumni a left-wing mob could choose to shout down, Rice has got to be the least intuitive. She was a well known as a moderate on Bush’s foreign policy team, and the popular conception of a split between her faction and the Dick Cheney wing is more or less accurate. Maybe you can fault her for not standing up for prudence as Bush plunged America into the most catastrophic war of the 20th century, but surely students at a college that paid Snooki $32,000 for a speech can find more firebreathing Bush cronies to protest.

2. I’d like to say I’m crestfallen over the decline of my alma mater. But the truth is ill-informed students are exactly as sanctimonious on the banks of the Old Raritan, and administrators just as craven, as they were two decades ago. In my day, student activists were holding down the quad in a resounding NO to President George H.W. Bush’s slashing of the social safety net, taking over buildings to protest a proposed 2 percent tuition hike (at a state school where a highly competitive education was, even to a fully self-supporting student like me, dirt cheap). Taking Back the Night was becoming a thing, and one of the pressing issues for students was a campaign to out Colonel Henry Rutgers, the school’s namesake. My ‘92 cohorts have not let me down since: A few have even managed to stick their noses into the current hubbub. The celebrated and unreadable racialist obsessive writer Junot Diaz was in my graduating class.

3. Politics estupidates us all. I took 200 and 300-level French lit classes with François Cornilliat, one of the faculty leaders of the anti-Rice movement, and he was an excellent teacher. To his credit, I never knew what his politics were, and I wish I still didn’t. What is the point of intruding politics, which is by nature binary, zero-sum, and focused on winning, into the liberal arts, which are, or are supposed to be, about nuance, discovery, and consideration of new or contradictory ideas?

4. For what is widely regarded as a no-nonsense safety school in the least romantic of U.S. states, Rutgers has a pretty extensive track record of pie-eyed tomfoolery. There’s even a whole campus — Livingston — that was introduced in the late sixties as an experiment in communal living with an ecological preserve and a bunch of other then-trendy gewgaws. At the groundbreaking, some Rutgers official declared that the “Spirit of Woodstock” had descended on central Jersey. Like many such utopian schemes, Livingston turned out to be a dystopia, with the common areas becoming magnets for sexual assault and other crimes. It now limps on as the school with the most underperformer-friendly admissions standards, and thus it probably has some usefulness in educating the Garden State’s masses. But its grim history is unremembered — except in The Livingstoniad, a mock-epic written in heroic couplets by one of my profs, a rare conservative on campus. I wish I could find a copy, because it was funny and hair-raising in equal parts.

5. The Rutgers site still hasn’t named Rice’s replacement as the main-campus commencement speaker, but a fitting revenge would be to do what they did with my class. After weeks of rumors that Ted Danson (then riding high as Sam Malone in Cheers) was going to be our speaker, they brought out some three-million-year-old Rutgers professor who explained how we were going to benefit from a “revolution in age” that was making it easier for oldsters to remain competitive well into their dotage. It infuriated me then that they expected a bunch of kids graduating into 7.5 percent unemployment to be grateful that the baby boomers would keep depriving them of job opportunities indefinitely. It still infuriates me now that I’m an old fogey myself. As my late father once told me, the two most self-centered groups on earth are young men and old women.

6. Does everybody know that Condi Rice has a high-achieving cousin, Los Angeles civil rights activist Connie Rice? Like most community activists, Connie Rice peddles her share of baloney: I once attended a Power Point demo on reforming the City of Angels’ gang intervention bureaucracy, in which Slide A was a classic Power Point spaghetti of hundreds or thousands of conflicting agencies, and Slide B (the solution) had one big block with a label that was something like “Gang Intervention Services” and an arrow pointing to a second big block with a label something like “L.A. Gang Problem.” (I’m exaggerating only slightly. There may have been three blocks.) But she is a serious person who had a hand in reforming a notoriously corrupt and racist police department and contributed to the era of good feelings that characterized William Bratton’s tenure as chief of the L.A.P.D. That’s a talented family, the Rices, with their own inspiring story of getting ahead in an America that was not always so welcoming to ambitious women. You’d think that kind of thing would be appreciated at a school presumably committed to raising up the younger generation.