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ASU Honorary Degree Policy For Sitting Politicians Not Documented

TEMPE, ARIZONA – Arizona State University became the unlikely focus of a political firestorm last week when news broke that ASU would not be conferring the customary honorary degree on President Barack Obama when he gives the commencement speech in May. The university’s official reason cites a policy of not giving honorary degrees to sitting politicians — but one sitting politician did receive an honorary degree from ASU and the university has now admitted that the policy was only “verbal” and never documented.

Crossposted from the Huffington Post

According to Virgil Renzulli, Vice President of Public Affairs:

Since my appointment, we have not awarded honorary degrees to sitting politicians, a practice based on the very practical realities of operating a public university in our political environment.

Renzulli explains that the policy was actually changed in 2003, the year after ASU President Michael Crow arrived, and after Robert Stump, a sitting member of Congress, was awarded an honorary degree.

Renzulli says Stump was selected for an honorary degree before Crow was appointed, but the conferment of the honorary degree was delayed due to illness.

A source who works closely with the Honorary Degree Committee, though, says no mention of sitting politicians has been included in the Committee guidelines, and he believes no policy was ever implemented regarding sitting politicians.

State Press reporter Adam Sneed interviewed members of the committee last week and no mention was made of a policy regarding sitting politicians. In fact, when asked about an honorary degree for Obama, committee member Paul Patterson said it had not had time to evaluate Obama for an honorary degree. No mention had been made of any policy related to sitting politicians. In fact, no mention was made of any policy related to sitting politicians until the story had been in the national news for nearly two full days.

ASU has also been unable to produce any documentation of any policy related to sitting politicians and the conferment of honorary degrees. Renzulli said, in an official statement to Huffington Post today:

The policy was changed in 2003 and it was communicated to the members of the honorary degree committee at that time. If this has not been discussed in the presence of newer members of the committee it may well be because no nomination for a sitting politician has been submitted to the committee since then.

[emphasis added]

Regarding the lack of documentation, Committee Co-Chair Christine Wilkinson says (emphasis added),

The university’s policy on honorary degrees is a combination of written and verbal instructions. The criteria pertaining to sitting politicians and donors is part of the verbal instructions.

Wilkinson reiterated ASU’s apology “for the confusion around the honorary degree process” and promised “to take steps to make sure something like this does not happen again.” Presumably, those measures will include documenting the committee’s guidelines and policies.


  1. louisprandtl

    mostly for the better. ASU is not in the league of top schools but does a very decent job providing education to nearly 40-50,000 students including a large set of minority students. It’s main campus at downtown Tempe has probably provides education to the largest number of students in any single American University campus.

    However ASU has done a rather poor job thus far addressing this snafu. There is no reason why President Obama should have been treated in such a cavalier manner.

    Thank you for doing some original journalistic work and posting them here at MotleyMoose. We are all very proud of your work.


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