By Hannan Adely, The Record (Hackensack, NJ)
HACKENSACK, NJ—In a span of less than 20 hours, Rutgers tried to quell a firestorm about its choice of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as commencement speaker by replacing her with a widely respected former governor of New Jersey, only to find it had created an even bigger, national uproar when former football player Eric LeGrand said his invitation to speak had been withdrawn.
“Rutgers offered me the commencement speech this weekend and I was going to accept but they decided to go other ways for political reasons,” LeGrand wrote Monday evening on Twitter, shortly after the university announced that former Gov. Thomas Kean Sr. would be the speaker.
Public outrage against Rutgers was swift.
“Could this get any more embarrassing for Rutgers?” the actor James Woods wrote on Twitter.
By 1 p.m. Tuesday, Rutgers President Robert Barchi announced that Kean and LeGrand, a Rutgers defensive tackle who was paralyzed in a game four years ago and whose perseverance has made him a national role model, would be speaking at graduation.
“It was never our intention that Eric would be the only speaker,” Barchi said in a written statement. “We have resolved that miscommunication and are delighted to have him participate.”
LeGrand said Tuesday that he accepted Barchi’s explanation and has agreed to be a speaker at the graduation, where he plans to talk about his personal story, his Rutgers experience, and the support he has been given.
“I do believe his apology is very sincere, and I am very glad I get to speak to the crowd,” LeGrand said.
The graduation blunder was the latest in a string of controversies for the school, which has faced criticism over its handling of a coach’s treatment of basketball players that many viewed as abusive and the withdrawal of the original commencement speaker, Rice, following student protests.
But it was a trying weekend for LeGrand, who said he was thrilled to be asked then felt down and disrespected when he was told the school had chosen someone else. He said he accepted the explanation that it was poor communication.
LeGrand said Barchi’s chief of staff reached out to him Saturday to be the new commencement speaker, after Rice backed out after protest from students over her involvement in the Iraq war. Meanwhile Barchi extended an invitation to Kean and announced Kean’s selection Monday.
Rutgers’ news release announcing Kean’s selection made no mention of LeGrand as an additional speaker.
LeGrand said he did not hear back from school officials and got a voicemail from Athletic Director Julie Hermann on Monday evening telling him the school was going “in the opposite direction” due to “political reasons.”