Condoleezza Rice inspires controversy as Simon Benson keynote speaker
Does Condoleezza Rice strike you as a good representative for the PSU Foundation?
That’s the question on many minds since the announcement that Rice would be the keynote speaker at the 12th Annual Simon Benson Awards on Oct. 19. The awards, named after Portland’s own Simon Benson, celebrate those who strive to pioneer philanthropy in Oregon and put on as a fundraiser for the PSU Foundation. Former keynote speakers have included Magic Johnson, Bob Dole, and Queen Noor of Jordan. Now joining their ranks, Rice has sparked a great deal of controversy.
Rice, a Stanford professor and a Hoover Institute Fellow, is best known for her roles in the Bush administration. She served as the National Security Adviser for Bush’s first term and as the Secretary of State in his second. She has faced criticism for her advice to the president both regarding the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001 and the potential threat of nuclear weaponry from North Korea.
The Simon Benson Award is named after Portland’s premiere philanthropist. For those who do not know who he is, simply walk down the street in downtown Portland.
See the bronze four-pronged drinking fountains providing clean water? Those are known as “Benson Bubblers,” paid for by a $10,000 donation in 1912.
Ever heard of Benson Polytechnic High School? It was financed in the early 20th century by Benson to provide a good education to the youth of Portland.
Benson’s efforts to improve Portland have lasted decades, and he is still seen as one of the most influential philanthropists in Portland’s history. The award named after him has been given to similarly generous people, such as Fariborz Maseeh (the PSU donor for whom the college of computer science is named) and Sam Wheeler of the Wheeler foundation.
Rice, whose forays into charity work have involved being on the board of the Boys and Girls Club of America, is no stranger to philanthropy. But it is her politics rather than her generosity that makes her so controversial a choice.
The decision to choose Rice as the keynote speaker is confusing. To many, the choice has not been sufficiently explained. For one thing, Portlanders were quite vocal in speaking out against Rice’s decisions in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. A majority of city residents disapproved of Rice and the Bush administration in general.
Some assumed that Rice’s selection as the keynote speaker signified a shift from choosing speakers who represent the tenets of an award or honor to simply the biggest name that the award can get. Moreover, the selection of someone so disliked for her policies might cause trouble.
Christopher Broderick, the associate vice president of Marketing and Communications-University Relations, said Rice was selected specifically because she’s so controversial. “The Foundation tries to get politically provocative figures from across the spectrum to speak at the Simon Benson Awards,” he said. He pointed out that Colin Powell, Mario Cuomo, and Madeleine Albright have been speakers in the past for the very same reason. “Speakers are chosen based on national prominence and personal relevance.”
Broderick pointed out that Rice is strongly tied to education. She was a professor at Stanford before being appointed by the Bush administration, and she returned to the university after her tenure as Secretary of State ended. She was the youngest provost ever appointed to Stanford, as well as the first female one.
“She rose in education,” Broderick said. “She rose at Stanford and was eventually named Secretary of State by Bush. She will probably talk about how education changed her life.”
Broderick admits that there have been some inquiries made about the decision to name Rice the keynote speaker, and President Wim Wiewel has taken them seriously. However, he also points out that the debate about it is a good thing.
“Part of the educational mission [of Portland State] is to value robust debate of ideas,” Wiewel stated in a letter responding to criticism of the choice. “That’s the underpinning of a liberal arts education at a public university.”
The decision to appoint Rice as the keynote speaker was made out for two reasons: to pull in a well-known figure and to inspire debate. The choice certainly achieved these goals. On Oct. 19, Portland will see exactly what Rice has to offer. Let’s hope it’s something impressive. ?