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.
"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."
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.
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
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
“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.” *
"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."
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