Some Bowdoin alumni are upset after former diplomat Susan E. Rice was announced as one of the three honorary degree recipients for the 213th Commencement, which will take place in May. Certain alumni expressed concern with Rice’s diplomatic record, particularly her response to an attack on U.S. assets in Benghazi in 2012, while others have lauded Rice as a worthy recipient.
“This year the Board unanimously agreed to provide the three honorands with the degrees in May,” said President Clayton Rose in a phone interview with the Orient.
The process for nominating honorands lies with the Board of Trustees. First, the Subcommittee on Honors, which is comprised of both trustees and faculty, brainstorms names, conducts preliminary checks on background and suitability and votes on whether or not to pass these names on to the Governance Committee.
The Governance Committee then votes on whether or not to pass the names of the honorands onto the entire Board for a vote. The entire board reviews the recommendations and has the final vote on whether or not to grant the degrees to the honorands. The candidates are vetted all throughout this process.
A portion of alumni was critical of granting Rice an honorary degree, and were vocal about their opposition on the Bowdoin website. Of the 38 comments currently on the College’s release, 19 of them express clear opposition to Rice receiving the honor.
Criticisms of Rice center on her time as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations under the Obama administration and her response to the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi, which killed five Americans in 2012.
Republican Senators John McCain and Kelly Ayotte then accused Rice of being part of a cover-up after the incident. They claimed Rice’s comments were intentionally misleading and that she played down the role of Al Qaeda in the attack because it would have hurt Barack Obama’s re-election chances.
However, a two-year investigation by the House Intelligence Committee revealed that “it was intelligence analysts, not political appointees, who made the wrong call,” and did not conclude that “Ms. Rice or any other government official acted in bad faith or intentionally misled the American people.”
George Hillhouse ’88 was among those who commented on the news release. He felt that Rice’s track record in public service disqualified her from the degree.
“I didn’t think it was outrageous or a disgrace—I just thought it was a mistake,” said Hillhouse in a phone interview with the Orient.
Honorands are typically selected based on two themes: significant contributions to the field in which they operate and a connection either to Bowdoin or to Maine. However, the latter is not true for all honorands this year; Ngozi Adichie is a notable exception.
Rice’s connection to the College runs deep, as her late mother, Dr. Lois Dickson Rice, received an honorary degree in 1984. Four of Rice’s uncles and two cousins are also Bowdoin alumni.
Vincent DiCara ’72, who also commented online, felt that the backlash against Rice went too far. While he admits she is not a perfect candidate, he feels that she has become a scapegoat in foreign policy.
“This is an honorary degree for somebody, who in my view when I look at her career, is a Stanford University graduate, a Rhodes Scholar, somebody who has worked in public service most of her life,” said DiCara in a phone interview with the Orient. “I think what we do when we are so critical of people like her is, among other things, we are really speaking ill of public service.”
Hillhouse similarly reflected that he did not have the visceral reaction that many did to her nomination.
“When you look at the other recipients from the honorary degrees at Bowdoin, for example Ambassador Rice’s own mother: super choice. She was a hero in the field of education—absolutely worthy recipient,” said Hillhouse. “But, as it goes to Ambassador Rice, I found it questionable.”
Some alumni expressed that Rice’s nomination was emblematic of what they perceived to be a larger disconnect between the current administration and the alumni.
“I think the very choice of Dr. Rice reveals that really great concern and sadness that many alumni feel about the direction of the College,” said Martin Gray ’59 in a phone interview with Orient.
However, others were pleased in the perceived direction that the College is taking with her nomination.
Jared Liu ’99 worked on John Kerry’s presidential campaign at the same time as Rice. While he says that his interactions with her were brief, Liu thinks she is a worthy candidate.
“I just think she representative of the best that we have in this country, and I’m proud to have known her. I’m proud that Bowdoin would recognize this kind of service and background,” said Liu in a phone interview with the Orient.
“I applaud Bowdoin for hopefully having recognized that this was going to generate some reaction and saying, ‘we’re aware of it and we’re going head on into it,’” said Liu. “Because, again, I do think she is very worthy.”
The College announced the honorary degree recipients in late March. In addition to Rice, Nigerian-born author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Nobel laureate Thomas R. Cech will receive honorary degrees.
“Chimamanda Adichie is a remarkable author, public intellectual, and her engagement with the great issues of our day has been quite remarkable,” said Rose. “The Committee and the Board decided that would be something to honor.”
The honorary degrees are subdivided into fields, with Ngozi Adichie receiving the Honorary Degree Doctor of Letters, Cech the Honorary Degree Doctor of Science, and Rice the Honorary Degree Doctor of Laws.
Cech, too, has a strong familial tie with the college. In 2003, Cech delivered the James Stacy Coles Lecture, as well as a public lecture on his research. Rose emphasized the shared values between Cech and Bowdoin as one of the reasons for the degree.
“He is deeply committed to undergraduate education and I believe still teaches a freshman chemistry course at the University of Colorado–Boulder,” said Rose.