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It's Commencement Season; Controversy Ensues
April 11, 2009 9:55 AM   Subscribe

To Degree or Not to Degree? President Obama will get an honorary degree from Notre Dame but not Arizona State University during commencement ceremonies this year. ASU finds the first black American president's "body of work" insufficient. The East Valley Tribune disagrees. And some enterprising ASU students have found a way to profit from Obama's appearance at their commencement.

Of course, lots of celebrities have been given honorary degrees over the years, some more worthy than others.
posted by etaoin (67 comments total)

 
> Tyson, Mike - Boxer and High School dropout, Central Ohio State University, Doctorate in Humane Letters, 1989.

Noted without comment.
posted by The Card Cheat at 9:58 AM on April 11, 2009 [5 favorites]


"Past recipients of ASU honorary degrees included an aloe-vera magnate, the director of "Victor Victoria," a Chinese official, a Canadian politician, and lots of donors and fundraisers." - source

Also: Screw ASU. It's more an honor for the university than it would be for Obama... I think his achievement is already quite public.
posted by chasing at 10:01 AM on April 11, 2009 [6 favorites]


Hopefully Obama will manage to console himself with his Columbia and Harvard diplomas and the memories of that teaching stint at the University of Chicago.
posted by availablelight at 10:01 AM on April 11, 2009 [59 favorites]


It's a clusterfuck. I read somewhere (can't find the link) that there's one committee in charge of invitations, and one committee in charge of deciding whether an honorary degree is justified. And apparently they didn't talk to each other before the invitation was issued. Brilliant.
posted by maudlin at 10:07 AM on April 11, 2009 [3 favorites]


Clearly they believe that Obama hasn't done enough to support alternative medicine, communism or cross-dressing.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 10:14 AM on April 11, 2009


"Obama, who will to speak May 13..."

Apparently the USA Today writer has an honorary proofreading degree?
posted by mr_crash_davis mark II: Jazz Odyssey at 10:22 AM on April 11, 2009


More people want to attend the ASU graduation ceremony because Barack Obama is coming, representing an increase in DEMAND, while there is a limited number of tickets available which means there is a shortfall SUPPLY, resulting in chances for PROFIT. ABC News, dropping university-grade knowledge on your ass.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:29 AM on April 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


"Obama, who will to speak May 13..."
Apparently the USA Today writer has an honorary proofreading degree?


Nah, they just outsource that stuff to India these days.
posted by Krrrlson at 10:31 AM on April 11, 2009


Politico says they're backing down.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:32 AM on April 11, 2009


Apparently the USA Today writer has an honorary proofreading degree?

Nah, they just outsource that stuff to India these days.

So you're suggesting that Indians can't proofread? I really hope you're just a shitty comedian.
posted by SeizeTheDay at 10:49 AM on April 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


So glad my undergraduate institution didn't give out honorary degrees. Effing weird.
posted by unknowncommand at 11:03 AM on April 11, 2009


Well, apparently heaven's easier to get into than Arizona State.
posted by box at 11:21 AM on April 11, 2009


Politico says they're backing down.

First of all, it's Barack, he's a grad school veteran.
And we already know who he's better than.
Yall know the beef in that state, it'll never end.
Never hit AZ until it lets its vendetta end.
posted by cashman at 11:23 AM on April 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


Kind of lazy to rhyme end with end. No honorary degree for you.
posted by found missing at 11:34 AM on April 11, 2009


I'd like for any rhyme mentioning Arizona to have the words 'by the time I get to' in there.
posted by box at 11:38 AM on April 11, 2009 [4 favorites]


Assemble the S1W!
posted by Joe Beese at 11:38 AM on April 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


beat me by that much...
posted by Joe Beese at 11:42 AM on April 11, 2009



"Obama, who will to speak May 13..."
Apparently the USA Today writer has an honorary proofreading degree?

Nah, they just outsource that stuff to India these days.


Isn't English one of the official languages of India?
posted by gc at 11:42 AM on April 11, 2009


I really hope you're just a shitty comedian.

Nah, he just outsources his comedy to India these days.
posted by danb at 11:43 AM on April 11, 2009 [8 favorites]


Yeah, honorary degrees don't seem to have a lot of integrity to me. Maybe if they're focused at someone who never formally earned a degree elsewhere but has done work over their life which the academy regularly draws on in some particular discipline. Or even if they were usually handed out as new magic rungs on a career ladder to someone who deserved them but for whatever weird reasons life serves up had their career derailed.

Instead, they seem like they're either small carrots to offer potential visiting celebs, or they're attempts to gain honor for the institution itself by showing they honor someone who's already famous. As availablelight points out, Obama really doesn't need any particular academic recognition. The whole thing has altogether too much similarity to the people who try to borrow the caché of an artist by showing everybody how much they looove their work.

If ASU doesn't want to give someone an honorary degree, that's fine, and I'd think the level of concern about the whole issue should be down with how much we care if the President gave a polite bow to someone. These are games of protocol and celebrity, they matter so little it's a bit ridiculous any political attention is being spent on them. I'd think the best possible outcome is that ASU gets to make whatever arbitrary choice they prefer and.... nobody cares.
posted by weston at 11:44 AM on April 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


There should be no such thing as an "honorary degree". The concept is stupid and insulting; a degree is something one earns only through great expense and years of self-sacrificial study absoring a specialized subject.

If they were more honest and changed its name from an "honorary degree" to a "warm fuzzy for being a famous person," then there wouldn't be embarrassing mix-ups about what it should signify, like right here.
posted by dgaicun at 11:55 AM on April 11, 2009 [7 favorites]


I just finished reading this, which actually goes a little further than fuckin' ASU racists!

Now, don't get me wrong, I'm a Wildcat to the end and the Sun Devils can roast on a spit for all I care (damn you James Harden!), but as explained in the link above this was simply a bureaucratic mistake and not at all due to racism. The relevant bits from the above link:
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 famous for its efforts to integrate its education into the larger global community.

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.
[.....]
It's been less than 3 weeks since 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 are emphasizing the respect they have for Obama and for the office of the President of the United States.
posted by carsonb at 11:56 AM on April 11, 2009


Now, if you had rhymed ASU with Kathmandu, Them Men's Blue, or Portmanteau, I'd be more impressed.
posted by found missing at 11:58 AM on April 11, 2009


Heh, oops. I wonder why the huffpost article didn't show as a 'visited' link on this post? Weird.
posted by carsonb at 12:00 PM on April 11, 2009


Maybe he can give them an iPod or some cut price DVDs or something.
posted by Artw at 12:09 PM on April 11, 2009


OMG I cant wait for the next 1285 FPP's, over the next four years or longer, about the latest Obama snub or offense. It's gonna be great. In fact, it's so much fun that I posted one yesterday. What was I thinking?
posted by Xurando at 12:11 PM on April 11, 2009


Yeah, honorary degrees don't seem to have a lot of integrity to me.

My alma mater doesn't give out honorary degrees. Really, I fail to see their point. Why not simply give invited speakers, "The Board of Trustees Distinguished Award for Willingness to Give a Convention Speech" award or something? I'm sure it looks just as nice when mounted on a plaque and is more descriptive than "Honorary Bachelors of Arts in Humanistical Studies."
posted by deanc at 12:21 PM on April 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


Now, if you had rhymed ASU with Kathmandu, Them Men's Blue, or Portmanteau, I'd be more impressed.

Especially since he'd be the first person ever to rhyme "portmanteau" with something it doesn't rhyme with...
posted by jock@law at 12:46 PM on April 11, 2009 [4 favorites]


sorry, no honorary degree for you either
posted by found missing at 12:51 PM on April 11, 2009


Obama: Columbia, Harvard Law, faculty member at the University of Chicago for 12 years.

ASU: Apparently a decent school, at least according to Wikipedia, but not quite in that league.
posted by Halloween Jack at 12:52 PM on April 11, 2009


(full disclosure: I did my undergrad at a second-tier state university, myself.)
posted by Halloween Jack at 12:53 PM on April 11, 2009


Dear God! What an outrage! I hope Obama is able to get out of bed tomorrow and shuffle through the day, in spite of missing out on this honorary degree from ASU. What a blow to the man's self esteem. I hope he wasn't counting on it too much.

This reminds me of something my senior English teacher used to say. "If you don't think Shakespeare is a great writer, just remember that his status is no longer in question, but your judgment still is."
posted by Pater Aletheias at 1:08 PM on April 11, 2009 [7 favorites]


With the way his administration is continuing (and increasing the reach) of some of George Bush's worst policies, his alma matter should be revoking any degree he holds.


The above comment includes exaggeration for effect.
posted by blue_beetle at 1:23 PM on April 11, 2009


"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."

Well, whoever initially spoke to reporters and said that "Obama's body of work is yet to come" should be sent to the woodshed. That implied "we assessed the merits of the case, and found it wanting" not "we never gave it any consideration."

That said, this is now something of a no-win situation for Obama. If ASU doesn't give him the honorary degree it looks like a slight and if they do give him the honorary degree it fuels the whole right-wing script about the rabid zealotry of Obama's supporters (we'll hear an awful lot about those "death threats" that "forced" ASU officials to give him the honorary degree).
posted by yoink at 1:39 PM on April 11, 2009


Have you noticed how obsessed the Obama campaign, and now the administration is with secrecy? I mean, why all the secrecy about a stupid speaking engagement. Obviously, it ended up causing a totally unnecessary problem here. I find it kind of obnoxious.
posted by delmoi at 1:39 PM on April 11, 2009


jock@law, you may only favorite your own specious comment if you can rhyme the word "favorite"
posted by found missing at 1:41 PM on April 11, 2009


It's more an honor for the university than it would be for Obama...

Not to mention the fact they would be able to lay claim to being one of the first colleges/universities ever to grant an honorary degree to Obama. He, like most other Presidents, will be receiving these honors throughout his life.
posted by ericb at 1:57 PM on April 11, 2009


Have you noticed how obsessed the Obama campaign, and now the administration is with secrecy? I mean, why all the secrecy about a stupid speaking engagement.

Presidents usually speak at 3 (or more commencements) each year during their terms of office.

I believe it is customary to announce the commencement list at one time, so as not to appear to favor one institution over the other.

So, nothing sinister regarding the secrecy of the Obama press office.
"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."
posted by ericb at 2:13 PM on April 11, 2009


Have you noticed how obsessed the Obama campaign, and now the administration is with secrecy?

Like the Bush administration was an "open book." Oh, and told the "truth" throughout the 8 years at press conferences, press junkets, Presidential addresses, television interviews, etc.
posted by ericb at 2:15 PM on April 11, 2009


The official White House press release (March 20, 2009):
President Barack Obama to Deliver Spring 2009 Commencement Addresses

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today at the White House daily press briefing, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs announced that President Obama will serve as commencement speaker at Arizona State University, the University of Notre Dame, and the United States Naval Academy this year. President Obama will address graduates, family members, and faculty at Arizona State University on Wednesday, May 13, 2009, the University of Notre Dame on Sunday, May 17, 2009, and the United States Naval Academy on Friday, May 22, 2009.
Makes sense to hold off and announce the three addresses at one press briefing, followed by the press release.
posted by ericb at 2:23 PM on April 11, 2009


ock@law, you may only favorite your own specious comment if you can rhyme the word "favorite"

That's right punk - I just made my own comment a favorite.
I hit that little plus sign, sit back, and then I savor it.

FACE
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 2:27 PM on April 11, 2009 [8 favorites]


Not to mention the fact they would be able to lay claim to being one of the first colleges/universities ever to grant an honorary degree to Obama.

Not to mention the fact they would be able to lay claim to being the first college/university ever to grant an honorary degree to President Barack Obama, America's first African American president.

If that's not an honor for your institution, I don't know what is.
posted by ericb at 2:28 PM on April 11, 2009


BTW -- George W. Bush's first commencement address was also at Notre Dame (May 20, 2001) where he was awarded an honorary degree.
posted by ericb at 2:44 PM on April 11, 2009


Obama's trying to stay focused on winning the Montgomery Burns Award For Outstanding Achievement In The Field Of Excellence.
posted by brain_drain at 2:54 PM on April 11, 2009


Just got this statement from ASU president Michael Crow, via email:
Attached please find our statement on matters related to recognizing and honoring President Obama during his upcoming visit.

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. We have not offered degrees to our sitting Senators or our sitting Governors as many universities do. We have not invited them as university commencement speakers either.

In this case, the historic election of Barack Obama, we invited him as our university commencement speaker, the first in recent memory. We did that out of recognition of his unique achievements and his deep connection to our mission as a university committed to excellence and access.

From the beginning we intended to recognize and honor the President, and we will.

I ask all of you to stay focused on the event and honor our graduates and our President.

We are a young and emerging university in a new and politically complex state. We serve in the most critically important role in higher education in the country, the public focused university. We perform well in that role and we will continue to do that.

Let's all pull together to make this event successful.


Michael M. Crow
President
http://president.asu.edu
And here is the attached statement:


ARIZONA STATE UNIVERSITY News Release
April 11, 2009

ASU to name and expand most important scholarship program to honor President Obama 
University apologizes for honorary degree confusion 

TEMPE, Ariz. – Arizona State University invited President Barack Obama to speak at its graduation 
ceremony out of the greatest respect for him as an individual and world leader. 
“I apologize for the confusion surrounding our invitation to President Obama to address ASU students at 
commencement,” said ASU President Michael M. Crow. “The entire ASU community has been electrified 
with excitement since we learned of his participation in our commencement ceremony.  We hope that 
the recent discussion of honorary degrees will not detract from the honor and thrill that ASU – and 
indeed all of Arizona – is experiencing in anticipation of his visit. I am honored, as are our faculty, staff 
and students, that President Obama will give his first commencement speech as president of the United 
States at ASU.”  

In recognition of President Obama’s commitment to educational access and to an entire career 
dedicated to public service, ASU is naming and expanding its most important scholarship program in his 
honor. Going forward, this program will be called the President Barack Obama Scholars and will offer 
thousands of students with the greatest financial need the opportunity to go to college. 
“It has always been our intention to recognize and honor President Obama's accomplishments during his 
visit,” said Crow, “but we had not yet determined the best or most appropriate way to do so. Although 
the focus and attention of the media and others has been on an honorary degree, we never felt that was 
the only—or even the best—means of honoring his tremendous service to our country. Naming this 
scholarship program after President Obama that will affect the lives of thousands of students is an 
honor befitting, not only the president’s exceptional achievements, but also his values as an individual. 
The President Barack Obama Scholars program will be a legacy that will endure and inspire others for 
generations to come.” 

Arizona State University
Tempe, Arizona USA
www.asu.edu

posted by LooseFilter at 2:55 PM on April 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


We are a young and emerging university in a new and politically complex state.

That wasn't a particularly smart thing to say. It invites speculation that this was essentially a political decision ("if we honor Obama, the state legislature will take it out of our hides"). He should have stuck to the (perfectly reasonable) principle of refusing to give honorary degrees to any politicians.

I hope that this scholarship thing will put paid to this latest silly storm-in-a-teacup, but the moron who issued the "body of work is yet to come" statement has made that a lot harder than it would have been otherwise.
posted by yoink at 3:03 PM on April 11, 2009


Since my appointment we have not awarded honorary degrees to sitting politicians...

Quick, quick, how do we spin this? Ah yes, every since I've been here (note: Michael M. Crow became the 16th president having been appointed July 1, 2002] we haven't done so. Yeah -- that's the ticket!
posted by ericb at 3:25 PM on April 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


“ASU president Michael Crow though has the final say so over whether President Obama will get the degree or not is. That could be another problem. Crow has been called insensitive, pig headed, and an unapologetic bigot for his alleged treatment of students, faculty, and especially women and minorities. The bill of particulars against Crow is that he fired 1/3 of the minority faculty at ASU West without justifiable cause, and that he has not hired an African American to serve as dean or a vice-president. He's also alleged to have fired a tenured African American professor even though a faculty committee that he appointed recommended that the professor be retained. Crow supposedly has turned a tin ear toward demands that he tell who and how many African-Americans the school has granted tenure to during his watch.

This is not the first time that Crow has been sledge hammered by charges that he's a closet bigot. Before taking the top spot at ASU, he served a stint as vice provost at Columbia University. Crow supposedly played hard ball in a gender discrimination lawsuit brought by a Latina professor. Columbia eventually was forced to shell out millions to settle the claim.

This is mostly hearsay and does not tag Crow as a president with a vendetta against women and minorities. So when the news broke that President Obama wouldn't get the honorary degree, all eyes quickly turned to Crow to do quick damage control and weigh in in favor of granting the degree to Obama. But that didn't happen. Crow gave a cryptic promise to a reporter that ASU would ‘honor him in every way possible.’ No mention was made of the honorary degree being that honor.” *
posted by ericb at 3:31 PM on April 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


We are a young and emerging university in a new and politically complex state.

Yeah -- young (established 1885) as compared to Harvard (1636), William & Mary (1693), Yale (1701) et al.

But, not that young. Many colleges/universities have been established "in new and politically complex states" much younger than yours.

FYI -- ASU Past Honorary Degree Recipients
posted by ericb at 3:41 PM on April 11, 2009


So, ASU will be including a public relations department in next year's budget?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 3:41 PM on April 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


Phoenix New Times:
"It's possible that this consolation honor may generate even more criticism than the original decision to not give Obama a degree when he gives a commencement speech on May 13. The way we see it, he still might get that degree."
posted by ericb at 3:44 PM on April 11, 2009


This is a very important issue.
posted by dirigibleman at 3:46 PM on April 11, 2009


This is a very important issue.

Exactly! Just as important as the issue of Obama bowing to the Saudi King.

It's so silly what political discourse has become. Think "lipstick on a pig," etc. The remnants of the 'Lee Atwater/Karl Rove School of Politics.'

Some people takes this shit for real. I find it fascinating to follow, but in the end it's just strange and telling ephemera of our political climate.
posted by ericb at 3:54 PM on April 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


*take*
posted by ericb at 3:55 PM on April 11, 2009


He should have stuck to the (perfectly reasonable) principle of refusing to give honorary degrees to any politicians.

However, in their past ASU has indeed issued many honorary degrees to politicians.
posted by ericb at 4:09 PM on April 11, 2009


However, in their past ASU has indeed issued many honorary degrees to politicians.

Sure. But at least it's a reasonable position to say, as President, "during my Presidency we shall have a policy of never offering any honorary degrees to any sitting politician." That's a principle which, whether or not you agree with it, is clear and straightforward (and I hope, for his sake, that he enunciated it some time before this current brouhaha).

But to say "ooh, well, we're a young university in a politically touchy state" is just to come across as a moral coward.
posted by yoink at 4:13 PM on April 11, 2009


...for his sake, that he enunciated it some time before this current brouhaha...

Agreed.
posted by ericb at 4:24 PM on April 11, 2009


Let's forget about the bigger political stage of the country and focus on that at ASU in gauging reaction to Crow's statement. I think politics in Academia can be more fierce than that of Corporate America and sometimes that of the Beltway.
posted by ericb at 4:27 PM on April 11, 2009


I think politics in Academia can be more fierce than that of Corporate America and sometimes that of the Beltway.

You left out the punchline: Because the stakes are so small.
posted by mediareport at 4:41 PM on April 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


They gave it one Canada's first woman prime minister, and Arizona's first elected woman governor, and Obama's not in that group?
posted by Flex1970 at 5:09 PM on April 11, 2009


Obama's a woman?

To be fair, Kim Campbell got hers in 2005, well after her time as PM in 1993, and she has doing some fairly interesting things since, so she may pass ASU's first reported set of criteria (which are still nonsense).

And I agree, let's see if Crow has to self-cannibalize if it turns out he never spoke of his no-politician policy before this week.
posted by maudlin at 5:54 PM on April 11, 2009


Let's be honest here. I've heard it from an administration official of a well known college. Honorary degrees are for fund raising. Look at ASU's list and it is pretty obvious. They are very effective at accomplishing what they are meant to accomplish. The degree really means nothing, but if it results in $50 million to the college, then sure, here's your piece of paper. Put it on your wall. Show it to your friends. Don't try to use it for anything else. It is really the exception when they are given out for other reasons.

That's why, typically, the commencement speakers are a lot more impressive than the honorary degree recipients. It's really a game, a little white-lie. Except, as ASU found out, sometimes those white-lies can come back to bite you.
posted by eye of newt at 6:10 PM on April 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


jock@law, you may only favorite your own specious comment if you can rhyme the word "favorite"

a- I may favorite whatever I want to favorite. The favorites system isn't about community judgment of one's comment, and if that's how you view it, then that's your own personal psychosis.

b- It's not specious. "Portmanteau" simply does not rhyme with any other word in that list. If you think it does, then obviously you don't know how to pronounce it. Portmanteau being a standard high school vocabulary list word, mispronouncing it makes you, in my opinion, illiterate.

posted by jock@law at 6:47 PM on April 11, 2009


Obama's a woman?

I don't think he's a woman, not that he shouldn't ever aspire to be one. But what I'm trying to say is: He's first at something big too. And, it's all nonsense.
posted by Flex1970 at 6:49 PM on April 11, 2009


More like ASS, amirite?
posted by Sys Rq at 7:29 PM on April 11, 2009




For me, being called both psychotic and illiterate by the jock@law is like getting an honorary degree from Insecure State U.
posted by found missing at 9:53 AM on April 12, 2009


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