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Condoleezza Rice latest graduation speaker to back out amid protests

Rice says she's unwilling to detract from the purpose of the college commencement ceremony in any way.
People who have been dis-invited or turned down graduation speaker chances: James Franco, Meg Whitman and more

Ah, commencement season, time for pomp, circumstance and controversy.

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has become the latest public figure embroiled in a commencement spat, announcing Saturday that she would not give the graduation address at Rutgers University this month because of protests.

She joins a list of those whose selection as a graduation speaker has raised a ruckus, including Eric H. Holder Jr., James Franco, Meg Whitman, Ben Stein and Dustin Lance Black.

Rice’s reversal leaves Rutgers with two weeks to get a replacement. Some Rutgers students and faculty groups had opposed the choice of Rice as speaker because they criticized her high-level role during the controversial Iraq War.

Fuss over commencement speakers is common each spring. Holder recently canceled a speech at the graduation ceremony for the police academy in Oklahoma City after local Republicans announced that they would bring "hundreds" of protesters to the event.  

But it's not often that speakers back out. In many cases, students who object instead turn their backs or walk out during speeches. And universities have been reluctant to rescind invitations, saying that they welcome spirited debates on topics such as race, gay marriage and abortion.

Rice said in a statement that graduation should be a time of celebration.

"As a professor for 30 years at Stanford University and as it's former provost and chief academic officer, I understand and embrace the purpose of the commencement ceremony and I am simply unwilling to detract from it in any way," she stated.

Two other high-profile rejections to invitations to speak have come at UCLA.

In 2009, Whitman turned down a chance to speak at the university's business school graduation ceremony. Whitman, a Republican candidate for California governor at the time, was criticized by students and alumni for her opposition to gay marriage. She cited a scheduling conflict.

That same year, actor Franco dropped out after students railed against the choice because they wanted someone more well-known and well-versed.

Last spring featured several notable back-outs, including former World Bank president Robert Zoellick, tax official Lois Lerner and neurosurgeon Ben Carson.

In announcing his withdrawal from Swathmore College's commencement, Zoellick also said he didn't want to distract from the pomp of the day for graduates. Some students had considered him a Bush administration lackey who helped launched the Iraq War.

Lerner, the director of the IRS’s tax-exempt organizations division, stepped down from her engagement at New England University School of Law after her division faced a criminal investigation of allegations that it targeted conservative organizations.

Carson came under fire at Johns Hopkins University because of his opposition to gay marriage.

Comedian Ben Stein and author Greg Mortenson have been among the small group to see their invitations revoked after protests.

Stein had been tapped to speak at the University of Vermont commencement in 2009, but his denunciation of the theory of evolution caused concern among the community. Questions were raised about Mortenson at Missouri's Fontbonne University in 2011 after reports emerged that parts of his book "Three Cups of Tea" may have been fabricated.

Pasadena City College recently rescinded back-to-back commencement speaking honors doled out to a screenwriter Dustin Lance Black -- who turned out to have a gay sex tape -- and public health official Eric Walsh -- who apparently railed against gays as a preacher.

Then on Wednesday, the college re-invited Black in a "healing effort." He hasn't responded yet.

[Updated, 6:45 p.m. PDT May 3: On Saturday, Black accepted the invitation. He told the student newspaper, “It will be my honor to deliver the commencement address for PCC’s graduating class of 2014.”]

"In the event Mr. Black is not available, the board authorized the superintendent-president to conduct the 2014 commencement exercises in a manner 'friendly to the graduates and their families' but with no outside speaker," the school said in a statement. The ceremony will be May 9.

More typical than the dis-invites and withdrawals is going on as planned through picketing, sit-ins and walk-outs.

President Obama has faced such displays at nearly every non-military commencement address he's given. At Notre Dame in 2009, some graduates pasted pictures of baby feet on their mortarboards to show their disdain for abortions.

Last year, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett looked out at graduates at Millersville University and saw the backs of chairs and signs that denounced the cuts he had made to the public education budget.

This commencement season, at least one school looks poised to see similar actions. Hundreds of people have called on UC Hastings College of Law in San Francisco to revoke an invitation to University of California system President Janet Napolitano. Student groups and immigrants argue that her policies as head of U.S. Homeland Security harmed immigrant families during President Obama's first term in office.

But Dean Frank Wu recently wrote that the school would "not shy away from the controversy that is integral to the progress of the law."

"We will do our utmost to protect the free speech rights of those who wish to share their opinions, while ensuring that the dignity of the Commencement ceremony is maintained," he said.

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