TEMPE, ARIZONA – Arizona State University President Michael Crow is saying that ASU will “honor President Obama in every way” just two days after student journalist Adam Sneed broke the story that Arizona State University (ASU) would not be conferring the customary honorary degree on President Barack Obama when he gives the commencement speech in May.
In a process that many consider a racket, universities typically confer an honorary degree on commencement speakers. When Sneed heard through the grapevine that ASU did not intend to bestow that honor on the President of the United States, he knew he had a story. He just didn’t know how big. He says university staff were very helpful when he went looking for details, adding, “I just don’t think any of us anticipated it getting this much attention!”
(Crossposted from the Huffington Post)
Faculty and staff at ASU have taken a lot of heat over this issue. Laurie Chassin co-chairs of the ASU Honorary Degree Committee along with Christine Wilkinson, but she is on sabbatical this year and is not involved in this year’s evaluations. According to a source within the administration, she reportedly received death threats, though, after this story hit national news on Thursday. An ASU spokesperson said they started receiving hate-email within minutes after the story was published on Huffington Post. Crow’s office was barraged with so many calls that many went straight to voice mail.
Everyone wants to know… why not grant a meaningless, honorific degree to the first African American president of the United States? After all, the universities own policy says that honorary degrees are given “for an achievement of eminence,” and it’s hard to argue that “leader of the free world” is not eminence.
Many have questioned whether such a decision not to award Obama an honorary degree could be racially motivated. After all, Arizona famously fought the establishment of Martin Luther King Jr. Day (MLK Day) as an official holiday. In the late 1980s, the governor signed an executive order to block the holiday in Arizona. In the 1990s, Arizona voters defeated a referendum that would have established MLK Day as an official state holiday.
So, the question keeps cropping up, is ASU’s decision based on race? Anything is possible, but it is not probable. ASU faculty and staff overwhelmingly donated to Obama over McCain. Tempe and the ASU campus within it are a bastion of blue within a sea of red in Arizona. President Michael Crow has been a strong advocate for diversity and equality, as have other administrators, faculty, and staff. ASU also granted an honorary degree to the first African American governor of Virginia in 2004. ASU is also most famous for its efforts to integrate its education into the larger global community. It seems clear, at least to me, that there is no racial component to this so-called snub.
So, why then?
After a day of digging and talking to ASU staff and faculty, it seems this may have been more of a bureaucratic snafu than a political snub.
The Honorary Degree Committee does not work in concert with those who search out commencement speakers. During a normal year, they would probably talk to each other during the process, but this year was different. When Obama accepted the invitation to speak at the ASU commencement, the news was top secret. People normally in the loop were frozen out. Those kept in the loop were sworn to secrecy. The Obama press team wanted to break the news themselves, together with the other commencements at which Obama would be speaking.
The news came, though, through leaks from beltway insiders. One day in late March, within the span of an hour, messages about the commencements proliferated across social networking sites, most notably Twitter. Without any warning, the news was out. The Obama press team and ASU quickly sent out press releases. So many people hit the ASU website that some of the servers went down. ASU didn’t know what hit them.
It’s been less than 3 weeks since the that ill-fated announcement. When I spoke with an ASU official yesterday, I was read the guidelines, which say honorary degrees are given for significant achievements over a lifetime and for achievement of eminence and so on. Then I was told, “Obama’s body of work is yet to come” and told that he could be considered for an honorary degree after his presidency.
Those don’t appear to be the words of the Honorary Degree Committee, though. Laurie Chassin, who is listed on the Honorary Degree Committee’s webpage as the active chair is actually on a one year sabbatical and says she “has no knowledge of this year’s process.” An official inside ASU says Obama was never nominated.
Could it be as simple as ASU being thrown for a loop by the secrecy, then the big accidental announcement and no follow-up with the Committee afterward? Crow told Politico, “We’ve gotten a huge reaction from a lot of folks as if some decision was made not to give him one. Far from it.”
Whatever happened, after 24 hours of countless nominations from faculty, staff, students, and alumni (and countless angry emails and phone calls from across the country), Crow now says the Committee will evaluate the nominations. University officials across the university are emphasizing the respect they have for Obama and for the office of the President of the United States.
Crow wants the public to know that ASU never meant to slight Obama, and he says that ASU will “honor Obama in every way possible.”