Thursday, April 09, 2009
Earl Ofari Hutchinson
It’s not clear if Arizona State University President Michael Crow had any say in the decision not to grant President Obama, the school’s commencement speaker, an honorary degree. But one thing’s for sure the dumbest thing that school officials said in telling why they won’t grant an honorary degreee to President Obama was not that he didn’t have a credible body of work and thus supposedly was unfit for the honorary degree. It was that the commencement committee may not have even considered him for the degree in the first place. Here are the names of the wise ones on ASU’s Honorary Degrees Committee who snubbed President Obama for the honorary degreee.
Laurie Chassin, Psychology, 2010 (Chair) Christine Wilkinson, Senior Vice President and Secretary of the University, 2010 (Co-Chair) Roger Adelson, History, 2009 Bill Miller, Applied Biological Sciences, 2009 Joan Brett, Graduate College, 2010 Claudia Brown, Art, 2010 Chris Callahan, Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, 2010 Philip Christensen, Earth and Space Exploration, 2010 Luis Gomez-Mejia, Management, 2010 Jewell Parker Rhodes, Virginia C. Piper Center for Creative Writing, 2010 Paul Patterson, Morrison School of Management and Agribusiness, 2010 Sander van der Leeuw, Human Evolution and Social Change, 2010 Linda Vaughan, Nutrition, 2010 Gary Waissi, ASU Global Engagement, 2010
The university vice provost and dean of the Graduate College; and the president of the ASU Foundation also are ex-officio members of the committee.
The committee members hail from all over the university map and they made no mention in the flurry of press announcements they put out variously explaining and defending the snub the exact criteria they used to determine why Obama didn’t cut the academic muster. That would be tough anyway. The whole thing is either ludicrous or farcical depending on how charitable one wants to be. By any measure--organization, political mastery, historic trend setting, his education and legal writings, research and instruction, and intellect—President Obama’s merits speak for themselves. And ASU officials pretty much acknowledged that by inviting him to give the commencement address in the first place.
The reason for the degree snub then can’t be lack of merit or a lack of a body of work. It’s something else and that something else speaks to the politics and money behind who gets an honorary degree and why they get it. In years past ASU has laddled them out to a laundry list of such academic wizards as a movie director, oil computer and microchip executives, and newpaper publishers. Universities, and that includes ASU, routinely hand out honorary degrees to a check list of fat cat contributors and donors. Universities have even been known to award them to politicians who have never taken pen to paper. This was the case in 2001 when Yale University awarded an honorary degree to George W. Bush. He was barely one year into his presidency. The sum of Bush’s academic accomplishment from Yale was a degree in history in 1968.
ASU also honored its favored political son, Barry M. Goldwater, with an honorary degree in 1961. It didn’t hurt that Goldwater was the state’s most influential US senator and could steer a lot of federal cash to the university. But a Goldwater honorary degree at least in that respect made some sense. Not sure if the same could be said for the recipient of the honorary degree from Long Island’s Southampton College in 1996. The academic marvel that year was a Sesame Street Muppet Kermit the Frog.
Then again maybe Kermit was more deserving than Bush since Kermit had used his celebrity to spread positive messages about environmental protection in public service announcements for the National Wildlife Federation, National Parks Service, the Better World Society, and other groups.
At least that’s what University officials said in defending Kermit’s honorary degree.
Then there are the universities such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cornell University Stanford University, the London School of Economics and Political Science and the University of Virginia. They play it close to the vest, maintain their level of real academic integrity and cut out the honorary degree sham.
ASU obviously isn’t on that elite list of academic non-honorary degree game players. And President Obama is not Bush or Kermit the Frog. So here’s how ASU President Crow can erase an embarassment. Ignore the Honor’s Committee’s blindspot toward or deliberate egg of the President, and bestow on him the award that he richly deserves, an honorary degree.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His weekly radio show, “The Hutchinson Report” can be heard on weekly in Los Angeles on KTYM Radio 1460 AM and nationally on blogtalkradio.com