Sunday, April 12, 2009

Commencement at Notre Dame, Arizona State and Columbia Law School

Universities line up every year to bestow honorary degrees on commencement speakers, alums and benefactors, politicians, business leaders, educators, and humanitarians.

The recipients are distinguished, and hopefully will not subsequently embarrass the institution through an arrest, imprisonment, or crimes against humanity. For example The University of Edinburgh, The University of Massachusetts, and Michigan State have revoked their honorary degrees to Robert Mugabe, the dictator of Zimbabwe.

Antioch College, the now defunct Antioch College, rescinded its speaking invitation to Ward Churchill in 2005, after the controversy over his intemperate remarks erupted.

The Ohio State University fired Woody Hayes as head football coach in 1978, but then awarded him the honorary degree of Doctor of Humanities in 1986. He actually received an even greater honor at Ohio State three years earlier; he is one of the few non-sousaphone players to dot the “I” in Script Ohio. Ohio residents and Ohio State alums undoubtedly overwhelmingly supported all three decisions.

Universities try to avoid controversy with their honors. For example, conservative Republican Presidents receive few invitations to give the commencement speech at universities, aside from the military academies.

As at Chapman, the issuance of honorary degrees should be with the advice and consent of the Faculty Senate as well as the Board of Trustees. That is not always the case with many institutions.

This year the University of Michigan found the perfect choice for the Commencement speaker, its wealthiest alum, Larry Page, the co-founder of Google.

Every year though, the commencement season becomes the Silly Season for some institutions. For example, in 2004 the University of Pennsylvania honored Bono, Villanova recognized Big Bird (Carroll Spinney) and Pitzer honored the domestic terrorist Bernardine Dohrn. Knox College in 2008 deemed Stephen Colbert deserving of an honorary doctorate.

Why not? The days of an eminent public official using the occasion to announce a major initiative have passed by. No longer will a George Marshall at the Harvard Commencement in 1947 propose the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe.

Let us start this year with Columbia Law School. It has bestowed the honor of giving the graduation address to an alumnus, who achieved great political success, the governorship of California. Unfortunately, Gray Davis then proceeded to lose the governorship, having been recalled in 2002 by the voters because of gross incompetence. Davis mastered the art of fundraising on an unparallel scale for a governor, but failed abysmally at governing.

It required incredible skill for an incumbent Democratic governor to be recalled by the voters in one of the most Democratic states of the Union. A failure, yes, but a spectacular failure, who can serve as inspiration in these troubling economic times!

A satire circulating at Columbia Law School posits that Governor Davis was chosen because an even more distinguished grad, Lewis “Scooter” Libby had “a prior commitment to speak before a half-dozen seniors in the basement of a VFW hall in Rockville, Maryland.” That hurts!

The Committee actually stated that since in all our lives we will fail at some point, Davis should serve as an inspiration to us.

It’s not often that a certified loser is a graduation speaker.

Notre Dame is the nation’s most famous and highest ranked Catholic university, outshining the 28 Jesuit Universities.

President John Jenkins must have been shocked at the negative reaction to the announcement of President Obama as the commencement speaker and recipient of an honorary degree. The choice undoubtedly met with approval by the Faculty. The popularly elected President Obama won a majority of the Catholic vote in 2008.

Notre Dame has granted honorary degrees to 9 of the past 13 Presidents starting with FDR. The four exceptions are Presidents Truman, Johnson, Nixon, and Clinton. Six Presidents have been commencement speakers. Three, Presidents Reagan, Carter, and George W. Bush, were honored in the first year of their administration, so the award to President Obama has strong precedence.

President George W. Bush was not universally welcomed, but the negative response was professional. Many students at President Bush’s appearance wore armbands protesting his support of capital punishment.

The Obama announcement struck a nerve with Notre Dame alumni, clergy and Catholics throughout America. The Bishop of South Bend, Indiana announced he will boycott the commencement.

The core tenets of modern Catholicism, as recognized by Guidelines of the United States Conference of Bishops, include opposition to abortions and embryonic stem cell research. President Obama has the contrary viewpoint and is implementing measures accordingly. Elections have consequences.

President Jenkins and the University of Notre Dame have every right to invite President Obama to the Commencement. The chances that President Jenkins will change his mind are small, but with actions come consequences and reactions.

Notre Dame is one of the nation’s greatest universities with one of the strongest alumni networks in the world. U.S. News & World Reports currently ranks Notre Dame tied with Emory as the 18th best National University in America.

But the ranking is tenuous. Emory and Notre dame are the only two of the top 26 universities with peer assessment scores under 4.0. They come in at 3.9. Universities ranked below Notre Dame, but with higher peer assessments are Vanderbilt, Berkeley, Carnegie Mellon, Georgetown, Virginia, UCLA, Michigan, North Carolina, Georgia Tech, Wisconsin, Illinois and Texas.

Notre Dame soars on the loyalty of its alumni, which it rewards with 40% of the entering class being legacies, compared to 12-15% at schools such as Harvard, Yale and Princeton. A critical factor in the rankings is the percent of alumni who give to the university. Notre Dame ranks third with 51%, trailing only Princeton and Dartmouth. By way of contrast, Berkeley and UCLA alums give only at a 14% rate, Michigan 18%, and Virginia the highest public university with 24%.

If Notre Dame’s fiercely loyal alumni reduce their giving rate, the university will drop rapidly in U. S News.

The alumni will remain loyal, as did Michigan Law School’s alumni, many of whom opposed the school’s position on affirmative action. The Michigan alums are giving in record numbers, 28% last year.

Notre Dame is not in Arizona State’s embarrassing position. It accepted President Obama as its commencement speaker, but is not awarding an honorary degree. ASU, historically one of the nation’s great party schools but now striving for academic excellence, believes the President has not accomplished enough yet in his short career to warrant an honorary degree.

ASU President Michael Crow is eating crow and announced that, while not granting the honorary degree, it will name the university’s most important scholarship “The President Barack Obama Scholars Program.”

The irony about graduation speakers is that few of us remember who our speakers were, much less what they said. In almost every case, they were too long.

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