We are in the midst of graduation season. Commencement ceremonies are a time for celebrating the achievement of students. They are also a time for the bestowal of honorary degrees, which too often becomes one last chance for liberals to exercise their dominance of universities through the selection of conferees.
The political nature of honorary degrees is not a new phenomenon. In 1985, Oxford University famously snubbed then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher by refusing to award her an honorary degree. Academics and students campaigned against awarding her a degree in protest against the government cuts in education funding.
This graduation season Washington University stands out as a sign of hope and rebellion against the traditional political correctness that dominates the selection process. Washington University decided to award Phyllis Schlafly an honorary doctorate of humane letters earlier this May.
Schlafly, who earned her undergraduate and law degrees from Washington University, has been a leader of the conservative movement in America for over 50 years. She is most well-known (and despised by feminist academics) for leading the effort to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment. She has authored or edited 18 books, has run for Congress and heads her own national organization. She is also the proud mother of six children.
As soon as Schlafly was named as a degree recipient, students and faculty organized efforts to block the award and when that effort failed, they resorted to the favorite liberal tactic— no, not pies, protests.
During the week leading up to commencement, students led protests outside the Chancellor’s residence. As if this wasn’t enough, at the commencement ceremony this past weekend, students, faculty and parents transformed this celebratory occasion into a political event. They wore white armbands and stood with their backs towards Schlafly as she received her award. Three faculty members even walked off the stage and turned their backs. Schlafly was unaffected by the protest. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, when interviewed about the protest, Schlafly said about her opposition, “I’m not sure they’re mature enough to graduate.”
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.