As the University’s Commencement draws near, faculty and students are planning to protest Yale’s presentation of an honorary degree to President George W. Bush ’68.
Three Yale professors are organizing a Commencement boycott, which 171 full-time professors had joined by Friday evening. In an unrelated effort, a group of two dozen students plan to pass out signs to graduating students to hold up when Bush takes the stage.
While some students said they hoped all of their professors would attend the May 21 ceremony, many students and faculty questioned the University’s decision to award Bush an honorary degree.
“He’s done nothing to deserve this award. Traditionally Yale’s honorary degree go to people who have a long and distinguished career,” said comparative literature professor Peter Brooks, one of the organizers of the faculty protest. “I think if you put an honorary degree to faculty vote, he would not get it.”
Many graduating seniors said they sympathized with the faculty petition but were disappointed that a number of professors would not attend Commencement.
“It’s a legitimate form of protest,” Musab Balbale ’01 said. “But in the larger picture, because Commencement is about the students and the people who taught the students, [the professors] should be there.”
Many professors listed on the protest petition said they were planning on attending the event until they decided to protest Bush’s award. Now, they said, they will attend only the graduate degree ceremony in Woolsey Hall and receptions later in the day.
Bush will be awarded an honorary degree during Yale’s Commencement on Old Campus. The University will award several other honorary degrees at that time, but because of tradition does not release the names of honorary degree recipients until the day of Commencement.
After newspapers reported two weeks ago that Bush would be one of the degree recipients, professors and students began informally discussing the purpose of honorary degrees.
Some said the honorary degrees are not the most important part of the event.
“The event is for the students receiving the degrees. The honorary degrees are a supplement,” said Cyrus Hamlin, a comparative literature professor. “The presence of George W. Bush is going to distort the entire Commencement ceremony.”
Yale President Richard Levin said that students are meant to be the focus of the Commencement ceremony, adding that honorary degrees are awarded with the students in mind.
“The honorary degrees are awarded for the students as exemplars — to make the event a meaningful one for the students,” Levin said.
Faculty and student protesters said Bush does not deserve the award. Professors said Bush has not written books or policy plans and that he relies on speech writers.
“I believe that he’s a man of immense mediocrity and doesn’t deserve an honorary degree, especially from an institution like Yale,” said Walter Cahn, an art history professor who signed the petition.
But graduating students uninvolved with the planned protest said Bush is an accomplished figure.
“Whether or not you like him or not, he is the president of the United States and deserves some kind of respect,” Michael Fradley ’01 said.
Many protesters questioned whether being president should automatically qualify someone to receive an honorary degree from Yale.
Former President Bill Clinton LAW ’73 has not received one. George H.W. Bush ’48 and John F. Kennedy received honorary degrees in 1991 and 1962, respectively.
A knowledgeable source indicated that all of the living presidents who have Yale degrees have been offered honorary degrees, meaning that Clinton was offered the honor.
Marianne LaFrance, a psychology and women’s and gender studies professor who signed the petition, said honorary degree recipients should be contributors to the intellectual community. She said Class Day speaker Hillary Clinton LAW ’73 has made more substantial contributions to public policy than Bush.
Levin said the University awards honorary degrees not only for intellectual achievements, but for important accomplishments in all walks of life.
In the petition, the faculty emphasize their belief that while Bush may deserve an honorary degree later in his term, his actions as president to date do not merit such a prestigious honor.
Hillary Clinton’s visit on May 20, the day before Commencement, has also met with controversy. Daniel Mindus ’01 organized an effort to convince the University to find a different speaker. Yale did not find another speaker.
Dean of Student Affairs Betty Trachtenberg said students are free to protest the speakers.
“That’s what it means to live in a free society,” Trachtenberg said. “Perhaps they will send a message.”
Diana Adams ’01, one of the protest organizers, said the student protesters plan to hold up signs that say things such as “Support Reproductive Rights. Make Yale Proud” when there is applause for Bush.
“You’ll see this sea of signs,” Adams said. “You’ll see a sea of collective disagreement.”
Students protested against former President Bush when he received an honorary degree at Yale 10 years ago, and the University’s relationship with the Bush family has since been tenuous. Current President Bush has not yet officially visited Yale, though his daughter Barbara was a freshman at Yale this year.
In November 1999 when Bush was asked in New Hampshire, where he officially declared his candidacy in the presidential race, if he would visit Yale, the presidential candidate’s answer was unclear.
“I’d like to come by, but visiting college campuses is difficult. People protest. You saw the protesters, here, today. There are even more [on college campuses],” Bush said.
Bush added that he thought his father had not been reasonably recognized for his achievement by Yale. Though the elder Bush held posts including director of the Central Intelligence Agency and U.S. vice president, the University did not award him an honorary degree until 1991, three years into his term as president.
“He was dissed,” Bush said.
Although 171 professors are signed up already and dozens of students said they were planning to participate, it remains to be seen how dramatic the protests will be.
Anywhere from 200 to 240 professors usually attend Commencement each year. There are roughly 2,800 full-time faculty members, Levin said. The 171 who have signed the petition hail from numerous sectors of Yale including the Medical School, the Law School and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.
— YDN Staff Reporter Matthew Matera contributed to this report.