An American history professor at Montana State University is protesting MSU’s selection of Condoleezza Rice as Freshman Convocation speaker, charging the former secretary of state made false statements leading to the Iraq War and condoned torture of prisoners.

MSU defended the choice of Rice. In a statement, the university said, “Whether you agree with Dr. Rice or not, this is an incredible opportunity for our students and the public to have a first-hand experience with a significant public figure who was involved in very important decisions about our nation.”

Rice, now a Stanford University professor, is scheduled to speak at MSU to thousands of students, as well as faculty and community members, at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday in the Brick Breeden Fieldhouse. Her memoir of growing up in the segregated South, “Extraordinary, Ordinary People,” was selected as the book all MSU freshmen were asked to read this summer.

Roughly 2,000 students and 6,000 university and community members are expected to attend the event.

Billy G. Smith, an award-winning professor of early American history who has taught at MSU for 30 years, wrote in a letter to the editor of the Bozeman Chronicle that freshmen should know “that many faculty staff, and students at MSU are appalled.”

“She was complicit in starting the war against Iraq by scaring the American public with false accusations that Iraq possessed nuclear weapons,” Smith wrote. “She also still condones the use of torture of prisoners.”

That’s not the kind of “moral perspective” the university should encourage in students, he said.

“If we as people don’t try to hold people accountable for their past misdeeds, if we simply ignore their behavior like it didn’t happen, then we are not being true to history and we surely won’t learn anything from it,” Smith wrote in an e-mail.

“We’re glad we have passionate faculty like Billy Smith on campus, who are willing to engage in spirited discussions on national issues,” Tracy Ellig, interim director of external relations, said Friday. “We’re also glad the university remains a place where the public can be exposed to speakers and thinkers from all ranges of the political spectrum.”

Rice was national security adviser during Sept. 11 and secretary of state under President George W. Bush. She has denied that the U.S. tortured prisoners, arguing that Bush’s Justice Department determined “enhanced interrogation” techniques, such as waterboarding, were legal. “We did not torture anyone,” Rice said in 2009 when challenged by Stanford students.

Critics charge the Bush administration came up with a narrow definition of torture, as the pain of “serious physical injury … organ failure … or even death,” rather than use more common international standards.

In 2003, Rice told CNN that there would always be some uncertainty about how quickly Iraq could get nuclear weapons, “But we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.” Later reports found no credible evidence Iraq had nuclear weapons.

Smith charged that MSU’s invitation to Rice came from a committee that didn’t vote democratically and that picking someone who had a high profile at the Republican Convention “politicized MSU’s convocation.”

Ellig replied that a committee of about 32 representatives from all over campus chooses speakers by consensus, and every year some members oppose the choice. Particularly with Rice, some didn’t agree with her politics, he said.

But she was seen as someone who had broken racial barriers, who achieved a lot through education and a strong family, and who wrote a book that would spark interesting conversations among students, Ellig said. MSU didn’t know months ago that Rice would be a featured speaker at the GOP convention.

“The mission of the university is to give our students the tools and provide the forums where they can … develop their own critical thinking skills,” Ellig said.

He said he didn’t know the amount of Rice’s speaking fee, though it’s typically in the “low tens of thousands of dollars.”

Tickets to the convocation are free and available by calling 994-2287.

Gail Schontzler can be reached at 582-2633 or gails@dailychronicle.com.

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