Scott McDonald* contributed to this article
On May 19th John Brennan, Deputy National Security Adviser and former CIA senior official, delivered Fordham University's 167th commencement address. When the invitation to Brennan was announced in early March, those Fordham students who were aware of and cared about what Brennan represents did their best, in vain, to get Brennan dis-invited. They saw scandal in the reality that the violent policies Mr. Brennan stands for remain in stark contrast to the principles Fordham University was supposed to stand for as a Catholic Jesuit University.
Controversy on campus grew, catalyzed by two protest petitions created by Fordham students and multiple articles in the school newspaper, The Ram. Eventually, Fordham senior and co-organizer, Scott McDonald, requested a meeting with university president, Joseph M. McShane, S.J., to discuss why Fordham's trustees could not be trusted to invite someone more representative of what we understood to be Fordham's core values.
Why "Off the Record?"
During the meeting McShane, Vice President Jeffrey Gray, and the university secretary, Margaret Ball, attempted to rationalize Brennan's selection. In the meeting multiple comments were made, which the administration officials present repeatedly termed off the record and "not to leave this room," presumably to avoid giving scandal. Scott McDonald left the meeting wondering if the moral theologians at Fordham would agree that torture has now become a "gray area."
After the initial announcement that Brennan would give the commencement address, and even before it was also revealed that he would receive a Doctorate of Humane Letters, Honoris Causa, it became quickly clear that many members of the Fordham community were strongly opposed to giving such honors to Brennan -- Fordham-alumnus-who-made-it-to-the-White-House, or not. Some of the faculty drafted a letter to President McShane asking for a meeting with Mr. Brennan before graduation to discuss his policies.
Eventually the Fordham administration agreed to the faculty's request. As for including students, though, Fordham's leaders decided to invite only one student from each of Fordham's two main campuses -- the Bronx and Lincoln Center.
It seemed clear at the outset that the main aim of the Fordham administration was to win agreement from protester students to sit meekly like lambs -- not stand like Fordham Rams with their backs to Brennan at the commencement. This was confirmed when Dean of Students Christopher Rodgers summoned student co-organizer Mike Pappas to his office and offered him the kind of deal he could not turn down. Except Mike did.
Students, Know Your Place
There could be a meeting with John Brennan, said the dean, if the students would agree not to stand during the commencement exercises. After speaking with fellow organizers, Mike and Scott said, "No deal." The administration then decided to allow a token student presence at the meeting, even though the student protesters reserved the right to stand in witness against Brennan's policies at commencement exercises later that morning. It quickly got worse.
"I am here today because President Obama has instructed us to be more open with the American people," said Brennan -- oops, that was not at Fordham; rather it was during a major speech by Brennan on April 30. The orchestration of the May 19 early morning meeting with Brennan was so transparently meticulous as to make a mockery of such pledges of transparency. The meeting had to be extremely private behind closed doors -- leaving one to wonder what Fordham and Brennan believed they had to hide.
Why Not ON the Record?
After Scott McDonald was chosen to be the Bronx campus' sole student representative, he explained to Dean Rodgers that the meeting needed to have transparency and full disclosure. Scott said that he would attend only if Fordham agreed to have either press or an independent videographer at the meeting with Brennan. He would not be mouse-trapped again.
At Scott's earlier meeting -- the three-on-one "don't-quote-me" deal he experienced with considerable wonderment on April 26 -- there had been no accountability whatsoever. Accordingly, this time Scott, Mike, and other student organizers felt that the "don't quote me" deal had to go. Mr. Brennan would need to be held to account, for his answers to questions, for example, on the morality of torture -- and, this time so did Fr. McShane.
Dean Rodgers said that this would not be possible and moved quickly to invite a student to replace Scott as the Bronx campus student representative. Rather than host an open discussion with Brennan, Fordham's leaders -- and presumably Brennan himself -- wanted there to be absolutely no accountability for what Brennan or any other participant would say.