Graduations, honorary degrees, student protest, and advising students

Last week, I wrote an entry about William Bowen’s comments at the Haverford College graduation. I was there to watch my daughter graduate and kept my entry brief because spending time with family trumped any urge to pontificate. I’m back for my last week as a department chair at USF and wanted to follow up on some of the topics I mentioned last week, as well as respond to this morning’s argument of Michael Rushmore, one of the graduating students who wrote Robert Birgeneau some weeks ago.

  • The better speakers at Haverford this year. The publicity over Birgeneau’s withdrawal and Bowen’s remarks distracted from the other honorary degree recipients at Haverford this year, poet Elizabeth Alexander and Environmental Defense Fund head Fred Krupp. Alexander read one of her poems about nineteenth-century educator Prudence Crandall, and I will fully admit my bias as an historian of education in judging her as the best speaker.1

  • The purposes of commencement rituals and honorary degrees. Graduation ceremonies are not just for the graduates in the same way that large weddings are not just about the couple getting hitched. They are about the communities that support those rites of passage and (in most cases) the families that helped the individuals grow. No, it’s not the bride’s wedding, nor is it the graduate’s graduation. It’s the family’s and the institution’s. In that vein, there are a number of reasons why institutions grant honorary degrees: to recognize service to humanity, to recognize service to the college or university, or (in some cases) to cement what the institutional leadership hopes will be a long-term relationship and future service. The protests against granting honorary degrees to Birgeneau and others often focus on one decision that the protesters disagree with, and the question on my mind is, how pure does someone have to be to deserve an honorary degree? If Birgeneau is ineligible because of his actions as Berkeley Chancellor, what about those who did not choose a public life: should we conduct background checks of potential honorary degree recipients? Get them fingerprinted? Why not do the same with the students who are receiving college or department honors?
  • The Nobel Prize problem in reverse. In addition, my concern with the “they’re ineligible because of their actions late in their career” argument is that it strikes me as the opposite of the Nobel Prize, which is sometimes given to violent people or organizations who are promising to change their ways. Sometimes this works out: Nelson Mandela and Frederik de Clerk were honored in 1993, before the transition to democracy in South Africa. But the next year, the Nobel committee honored Yassir Arafat, Shimon Peres, and Yitzhak Rabin; how did that choice pan out? Maybe an institution should grant an honorary degree for a long record of service to either the college/university, one’s field, or humanity in general. That strikes both the scratch-my-back honorary degree one occasionally sees and also concerns based on a single incident that was not a defining moment for the candidate.
  • Ad hoc protests. One of the features of the complaints about honorary degrees given to Robert Birgeneau and others is the tendency to focus on a single recipient. If there was a flawed consideration of Robert Birgeneau’s candidacy, why would the same argument not apply to the parallel consideration of the other three recipients? Or all those who have received honorary degrees recently from Haverford (say, 2004’s honorary degree granted to Paul Krugman, the 2005 degree given to Molly Ivins, or any other recipient in the past ten years)? You either have a case of procedural flaws, in which case the argument is with the system, or you’re making a case that an acceptable process ended up with a result you didn’t like, which looks like selective complaining.
  • Yes, the open letter was a demand. Here is the language Rushmore highlighted in today’s column: “before you are honored by our community, we believe it is necessary for you to…” I am trying to figure out how to read this as anything other than a demand for a response.
  • Combative nonviolence. I think both Birgeneau and Bowen were responding more to the belligerent tone of the open letter to Birgeneau than to the concrete issues, and Rushmore’s column in Inside Higher Ed continues that tone. What surprised me about the tone was how familiar it was; I remember similarly righteous language from various student groups when I was an undergraduate. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, and all that implies. As someone who vividly remembers some of the mistakes he made in college, I have quite a bit of sympathy for those who jump to the language of righteousness. I just don’t think it does much good, especially on a college campus. It tends to exclude by implying that those who disagree with you are somehow immoral just for the disagreement. The open letter’s “please submit to this or we’ll write another letter” structure was jarringly at odds with the righteous tone. On the other hand, I agree with Bowen that Birgeneau’s response was petty on the same scale, and by someone who was much older and presumably more mature. I guess that if you respond without thinking clearly, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” can apply to individuals as well as to institutions and societies. For those who are curious if it’s possible to have both enduring conflict and also reasonable human relationships, I recommend Bernard Mayer’s Staying with Conflict (2009).
  • How to advise students on campus politics. As I noted last week, Bowen’s remarks were directed outside Haverford, not written primarily for students. If he had been speaking primarily to students, I would hope he would have framed the issue as one of choices, and the capacity to choose when passionate about an issue. I am somewhat circumspect when it comes to faculty didactically instructing students about campus politics (see #4 in my “the wrong moves” entry); but we can and should help students explore their understanding and choices. When I was living in Philadelphia right after graduate school, a group of students stole an entire edition of the student newspaper, the Daily Pennsylvanian. I didn’t know the students in question, and while I was an itinerant visiting faculty member that year in Delaware, I kept mulling the issue on my drive between South Philadelphia and Newark. If a student came up to me angry about newspaper coverage of an issue and proposed to abscond with all copies of an entire issue, how would I respond? I think that’s the wrong choice on so many grounds, but I thought castigation/shaming was not likely to be productive, or educational.2 On the other hand, I think faculty have the authority to probe, to ask further questions, to push students to clarify their choices. For a variety of reasons, passionate responses to current events are not usually taken as a weighing of various options. Even wisely-chosen and effective responses to passions are rarely the result of considering a broad range of options. But pushing that deliberate consideration is the prerogative of a faculty member.
    • Are your goals mostly long- or short-term, and how does your preferred option address that composition?
    • What are the alternatives you are measuring this option against? Why have you chosen your proposed alternative over them?
    • What are the strongest rational arguments against your preferred option? How have you addressed them?
    • Who would react most strongly to your proposed actions? Would that reaction further or hinder your goals in the timeframe you specified above?

One last item: Birgeneau’s withdrawal is not the first time that an honorary degree recipient has rejected the honor from Haverford. In 1986, former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Drew Lewis declined the honor… from the podium at graduation. A Haverford graduate, Lewis said that he thought an honorary degree should be a consensual honor bestowed by the faculty, about one-third of whom had written a letter to protest the honor because of Lewis’s actions in breaking the 1981 air-traffic controllers strike. Lewis declined the degree and defended his decisions in front of those who protested, very unlike Birgeneau.

If you enjoyed this post, please consider subscribing to the RSS feed to have future articles delivered to your feed reader.


  1. The birds on the green agreed: they were singing through the poetry reading. []
  2. I read Bowen’s tone last week as precisely one of castigation. []