Condoleezza Rice Challenges NASPA Student Affairs Leaders

We in
universities have
a special responsibility to
touch future leaders.

Dr. Condoleezza RiceDr. Condoleezza Rice

Soon after she stepped down as U.S. Secretary of State, Dr. Condoleezza Rice was back in her old job as professor of political science at Stanford University CA and a senior fellow on public policy at the Hoover Institution. The former U.S. chief diplomat gave the keynote address to student affairs administrators at the 2010 NASPA conference in Chicago.

She’s a former mentor to the conference chair Dr. Lori S. White, VP for student affairs at Southern Methodist University TX. They met 20 years ago at the home of Stanford’s vice provost of student affairs Dr. Mary Edmonds, while White was an undergraduate at Berkeley.

Rice, on the political science faculty since 1981, served as provost there from 1993 to 1999—the first woman and first African American to do so. She received two awards for distinguished teaching and wrote several books.

While Rice was provost, White was a graduate student in education policy at Stanford who looked to her as a role model. “She’s one of the few females who knows more about football than I do,” White said. Rice has never missed a Super Bowl, according to ESPN.

During the 1980s and ’90s Rice served in several federal advisory roles for foreign affairs. President George W. Bush appointed her national security advisor in 2001 and Secretary of State in 2004, a position she held for the remainder of the Bush administration. Now she’s delighted to be back in the education sector: “I can get up in the morning and read a newspaper and not have to do anything about it.”

Critics may call Rice a war criminal for her support of President Bush’s international policies and wars, but some at NASPA found her to be honest, self-effacing, very intelligent and well-spoken. “She’s made a believer of me,” said a woman who’d planned to skip listening to a supporter of Bush policies. Another commented: “She created an environment she can live with.”

America’s log cabin myth

“We in universities have a special responsibility to touch future leaders,” Rice told the student affairs administrators at NASPA. She asked them to keep in mind the question, What legacy will this conference leave in 20 or 30 years?

As Secretary of State she got to see what people in other countries think of the United States. “They resent our economic power but are glad we have the economy to help the helpless and the hopeless,” she said. They admire our great “log cabin myth”—that one can come up from poverty and still succeed.

Her family history embodies the log cabin myth. Her paternal great-grandfather was a slave and later a poor tenant farmer. His son, John Wesley Rice, took inspiration from George Washington Carver and others to get some book learning. He saved up money from his cotton crop to attend the Stillman Institute AL, then a small Presbyterian college. When his money ran out, he asked how the other boys managed to pay. Told they were in a free program for training preachers, he said, “That’s just what I planned to be!”

Rev. Rice—as he became—emphasized education to his children. He traveled about the South starting schools and churches. His daughter Theresa (Condoleezza’s aunt) became the fi rst black woman to get a PhD in English at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, in Victorian literature.

His son, John Wesley Rice Jr., studied at Stillman and at Johnson C. Smith College NC. He became an ordained Presbyterian minister and a high school guidance counselor and coach near Birmingham AL. Denied the right to vote in the solid Democratic South, he joined the Republicans because they helped him register in 1952.

He married Angelena Ray, who taught high school music, math and science. Their daughter Condoleezza (from a musical term meaning “with sweetness”) was born in 1954, the year the Supreme Court ruled public school segregation unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education. One of the four little girls killed in a Birmingham church bombing in 1963 was Condoleezza’s friend from school.

Her parents raised her with high expectations for education and hard work. The family spent summers in Colorado while her father, Stillman College dean of students from 1966 on, worked on his master’s degree at the University of Colorado. They moved there when he became its associate vice president for student services in 1969. Condoleezza attended a Catholic school and pursued her passions for ice skating and playing the piano.

Passion, challenge, failures

How do we encourage students to take on a challenge? How do we encourage them to find not just a career but also a passion? Sometimes we forget they’re just 18 or 19, terrified and lacking in life experience, she said.

Do we encourage them to try things that are really hard? Skating challenged her because her legs were too long for her body. She found math difficult and valued the good grades she got in it. “It’s good for students to know they’ve overcome some difficult things in life,” she said.

Do we help them find what they really want to do? Her mother and grandmother had been musicians, and she started playing the piano at age three. She went to college to become a concert pianist. Then she met 12-year-olds who played better than she ever would, and realized her dream would never come true. When she told her parents she was changing her major, she didn’t yet know what it would be. She tried English lit and hated it. She tried political science and was bored by interviewing the city water manager.

Then Rice was introduced to international politics and found a new passion. Her professor was Dr. Josef Korbel, father of the later Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. She graduated in Soviet studies in 1974 at age 19, cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa. She earned a master’s degree at Notre Dame University. Upon completing her PhD in international studies at the University of Denver in 1981, she became an assistant professor at Stanford.

Her passion for piano music continued, though not as a profession. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma invited her to perform a duet with him in 2001. On one of her last trips as top diplomat, she played for the queen of England in a quintet in 2008.

Difference and vision

Rice teaches in terms that students can understand, using football analogies to attract student athletes to her classes.

Do we encourage students to see the other side? Americans spend too much time listening to the American chorus instead of hearing the other side. “The other person is not the devil. They’re allowed to have different views,” she said.

Do we press them to spend time with others who don’t think or look like them? The United States is a big country; students may not encounter difference unless they seek it out. “In most of the world, difference is a license to kill,” she said.

Do we model how to communicate across difference? Seek out people who can help you; they don’t have to look like you. Her mentors were Eastern European white men: Professor Korbel, and later Brent Scowcroft, U.S. national security advisor for Presidents Ford and George H. Bush, who drew her into government service.

Do we teach communication skills? If you think it’s hard in America, trying living in another culture. Learn another language. “Your accent may not be perfect but they love you for trying,” she said.

Do we teach a sense of gratefulness? Like other Americans, students need to let go of their sense of entitlement and grievance that measures wellbeing against what others have. Faculty and staff can open students’ eyes to how little most people have globally, getting them to ask instead, “Why do I have so much?”

Do we exude to students a sense of optimism about the future? “I honor a grandfather who showed me, who found a way to get an education,” Rice said. When she was a little girl in Birmingham AL she couldn’t buy a hamburger in a restaurant because of her race, but she grew up to become Secretary of State and now a black man is President.

Are we letting students become pessimistic and cynical? Cynicism would have kept George Washington from winning the American Revolution after a third of his troops died in the process. Cynicism would have stopped the pioneers from crossing the Continental Divide in covered wagons. Cynicism might have prevented the United States from surviving the Civil War. But Americans have a belief in possibility.

What can we advise students to do today besides give up? One of her worries is the state of K-12 education. We need to stop warehousing children in public schools and prepare them for college, Rice said. Encourage your college students to tutor and mentor high school students. Besides helping those whom they tutor, it will give your students perspective on other parts of American society and empower them to know they can make a difference.

If students find the job picture daunting, encourage them to stay focused and get an education without looking too far into the future. Then help them find people who can help them. The U.S. is a country of immigrants, most arriving with little but their ambition. Soviet-born Sergey Brin’s pursuit of his dreams led him to found the Internet giant Google.

“We have the privilege of touching the lives of leaders of the next generation,” she said. We need to guide them to optimism and away from a sense of entitlement, so they become the leaders who are honored at conferences like NASPA years from today.



Cook, Sarah Gibbard. (2010, April). Condoleezza Rice Challenges NASPA Student Affairs Leaders. Women in Higher Education, 19(4), 1-2.

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