Monday, April 13, 2009

Following Up On President Obama's ASU Snub

In an earlier post, I had written about the hysteria over President Barack Obama's upcoming commencement address at Notre Dame University. I have to give Notre Dame credit, however, at least the campus knows how to treat a president with respect. They plan to award Obama an honorary degree.

Arizona State University is another matter, entirely. The president is planning on delivering a commencement address there as well.

Proving that anybody who asks the right questions can break a story, give credit to Adam Sneed, a student journalist for the ASU Web Devil.

As Sneed reported:
ASU will not award President Barack Obama an honorary degree when he speaks at the commencement ceremony on May 13.

University spokeswoman Sharon Keeler said Tuesday that the University awards honorary degrees to recognize individuals for their work and accomplishments spanning their lifetime.

“Because President Obama’s body of work is yet to come, it’s inappropriate to recognize him at this time,” Keeler said.

Previous recipients of honorary degrees from ASU had long-established careers in their fields of work, Keeler said, and they aren’t necessarily affiliated with ASU.
The story was quickly picked up by The Huffington Post, causing the University to quickly try to extricate themselves from the gathering bad press.

According to the initial Dawn Teo piece (from April 11th), after reporting that ASU would be honoring President Obama "in every way," Teo wrote:
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.
This was then followed up by a news release on the university website:
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.”
Teo did a follow-up story on HuffPo that mentioned this release and indicated the possibility of a bureaucratic snafu. In her follow-up Teo wrote:
the grapevine within the upper echelons of the ASU administration was surmising that the political snub was really a bureaucratic snafu.
Bureaucratic snafu? I don't think so.

You see, we still have the issue where an ASU spokesperson said Obama's body of work did not justify an honorary degree. It isn't enough that he has become the first African-American president? They want to see his performance. Yet, his body of work is good enough to issue a scholarship in his name?

So, I decided to follow up and contact the University myself.

Initially ASU representative Terri Shafer directed me to the news release on the school's website(not to mention the link to the Huffington Post article), that referred to the naming of a scholarship.

I wrote back saying that it made no sense to not award an honorary degree, yet name a scholarship after a man who did not have a sufficient "body of work."

This was her response:
The policy that has been the subject of attention was put in place in 2003. It was supposed to have removed conflicts of interest that result when honorary degrees are given to major donors and politicians still in office who can influence legislation that affects the university. The policy since that date has been to award honorary degrees to political figures late in their careers, after they have left office.

President Obama is a remarkably accomplished individual who clearly merits an honorary degree. We have learned a big lesson here, and we will take action to prevent something like this from happening in the future.
Well, if that is the case, wouldn't the naming of a scholarship in President Obama's name create even more of a conflict of interest? I think, for the sake of the reputation of ASU, they seriously need to change their decision on the honorary degree now. While Shafer said Obama "merits (the honorary degree) now," I am still waiting to hear whether or not he will receive one. The other reasons for witholding it went out the window when the scholarship was named after President Obama.

Considering that Arizona was a state that fought long and hard over even having a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, this is something they should focus on correcting ASAP.

Arizona State University, from what I have read from Teo's pieces, is actually supposed to be a point of enlightenment in the state. Why should that reputation be needlessly tarnished by rigidity. Especially considering that the naming of the scholarship just threw their whole 'conflict-of-interest' argument out the window.

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