Profs. to protest Bush's degree in letter to Kim

by Amelia Acosta | 5/25/11 10:00pm

Seventy-five faculty members have signed a draft of a letter expressing dissatisfaction with the College's decision to award an honorary degree to former U.S. President George H.W. Bush, the letter's author and history professor Walter Simons said in an interview with The Dartmouth. The faculty members claim that Bush's values are contrary to those of the College and that granting politicians honorary degrees can be construed as an endorsement of their political ideologies, according to a copy of the letter sent to The Dartmouth by a professor.

"We question the wisdom of conferring these degrees on prominent politicians because there's always a risk that the award is seen as a political endorsement," Simons said. "Bush stood for certain values that are difficult to reconcile with the views that this academic institution stands for."

The College supports faculty members' right to express their opinions but will uphold its decision to award an honorary degree to Bush, according to Director of Media Relations Justin Anderson.

"We respect that," Anderson said in an email to The Dartmouth. "But we are proud to be honoring another American President in the tradition of [former U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower and former U.S. President Bill Clinton] who also received honorary degrees from Dartmouth College."

Simons said he recently learned that the College's Council for Honorary Degrees approved the decision to grant Bush an honorary degree and plans to incorporate this new information in the finalized version of the letter that will be released and sent to College President Jim Yong Kim by Friday.

Dartmouth's Council on Honorary Degrees is composed of six faculty members, one from each of the arts and sciences divisions and one from each graduate school, according to Anderson. The Council sends a mailing to faculty members and graduating students each fall requesting names for consideration for honorary degrees. The senior class president also participates in the Council's deliberations, he said.

"The Council members meet with the president, who presents a list of recommended nominees to the Board of Trustees," Anderson said. "The Board ultimately approves a list of names from which the president issues invitations to potential honorary degree recipients and a commencement speaker."

The letter calls into question both the decision to award Bush an honorary degree and the overall process by which recipients are selected, Simons said.

"Bush's historical record makes it very difficult to view him as someone representing values that we can all agree upon, especially for African-Americans and those of Latino descent," he said. "The process by which faculty review the nominations needs some revisions, and we would like to see discussion of how we award these degrees in the future."

The letter cites Bush's involvement in "illegal operations in Central and Latin America that left countless dead" and the Iran-Contra Affair, during which he served as the director of the Central Intelligence Agency as negative aspects of his political career. The letter also raises issues with "attack ads exploiting racial sentiments" used during his 1988 presidential campaign.

The decision to honor Bush at Commencement is problematic due to how such an action will be perceived by the rest of the world, Simons said. Assessing Bush's political experiences reveals "some really problematic aspects of his career," Simons said. "In the current view, President Bush is often presented as a moderate Republican, but in my view as both .an academic and a historian, this is a actually a very problematic view," he said.

In its current form, the letter faces opposition from some faculty members who find its content "misguided and partisan," anthropology professor Sergei Kan said.

"This letter seems to accuse former President Bush of everything the only thing that isn't his fault is the recent tornadoes," Kan said. "It's the fact that he was a Republican president, that's what upset the letter writer."

There was no protest when the College awarded an honorary degree to Clinton in 1995, Kan said.

"I think the letter is misguided and not very clever," he said. "The letter writer takes every grievance he has against the Republican Party and hangs it on former President Bush."

Kan called the letter "hypocritical," citing a passage that refers to Bush as "someone who for many working Americans symbolizes inherited privilege, the oil industry and corporate wealth."

"Had this been someone in the liberal community who had been born to privilege and money, there would be no problem," Kan said. "Bush has also done a lot of humanitarian work since he left office, and he has a lot of accomplishments that even my liberal colleagues can't disagree with."

Despite the letter's political undertones, the letter writers' concern with the appointment of politicians as honorary degree recipients is valid, Kan said.

"I agree with the issue of conferring honorary degrees on politicians, because someone's favorite politician is always someone else's least favorite politician," he said. "I could see myself objecting to some Democratic candidates for the same reason, but at this point the decision has already been made. He's a former president, and I think we owe him some respect."

The letter also criticized the College's decision to name Conan O'Brien the 2011 Commencement speaker, because "outside interests and a mindless celebrity cult have become dominant" in recent years, the letter said.

Kan said the critique of O'Brien as a speaker is more justified than the critique of Bush as a degree recipient.

"I think it's tacky and shows a lack of taste that we have a former president among the honorary degree recipients but a late night comedian being the Commencement speaker," Kan said. "I've heard from several colleagues, left and right, that we at Dartmouth are making a statement that we value celebrities more than political figures."