This kind of behavior on a college campus is not particularly surprising, but the fact that the Chancellor stood up against the opposition is a sign of hope. Granted, he defended the decision in an email to the student body by first distancing himself from Schlafly, “Personally, I do not endorse her views or opinions, and in many instances, I strongly disagree with them.” He justified the decision in terms of diversity, “I want to affirm my personal and the University’s institutional commitment to strengthening diversity and inclusiveness…” The fact that he did not bend to the pressure is a step in the right direction.
Even more striking about this controversy is that Trustee Emeritus Margaret Bush Wilson volunteered to read the citation to award the degree. Wilson was the first woman of color to serve as the national chair of the NAACP, the second woman of color admitted to practice law in Missouri and is a prominent civil rights attorney. She volunteered to read because of her strong belief in the importance of free speech.
Washington University could have followed many of its peer institutions this year by awarding degrees to politically correct figures. University of Pennsylvania, for example, conferred a doctor of humane letters honorary degree on Drew Gilpin Faust, Harvard’s first female president and Brown University is conferring a degree on filmmaker and environmentalist Robert Redford. Washington University could have chosen popular figures such as Pierce Bronson, Tim Allen, Maya Angelou, Billy Joel or Ray Charles, who have all received honorary degrees. It could have even awarded a degree to a frog, as Long Island’s Southampton College bestowed a degree on Kermit the Frog in 1996.
Amidst the thousands of honorary degrees bestowed each May, the story of Schlafly’s degree is a sign of hope for true intellectual diversity on college campuses. Rather than just talking the talk of diversity and tolerance, Washington University and especially Trustee Wilson walked the walk. And for this, they should be applauded.