By Erin Shanahan
United Student Government (USG) on Thursday voted against supporting Fordham Faculty Against Torture (FFAT), the newly-founded faculty organization urging the university to revoke the honorary degree it awarded to John Brennan, current director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
USG shot down the resolution during its last meeting before a week-long break. There, the student group expressed concerns about the precedent an official USG decision would set, as well as disparaging views over the role of USG as the voice of Fordham students on this issue.
The resolution, presented by Nicholas Sawicki, FCRH ’16, vice president of Fordham College Rose Hill, would express support for FFAT’s overall efforts along with its petition to revoke Brennan’s honorary degree.
Much of FFAT’s effort has been online, where the group has authored a petition that calls upon Fordham to revoke Brennan’s honorary degree. It currently has more than 300 signatures, including those from students, faculty, instructors and alumni.
“Certain members felt that the revocation of John Brennan’s Honorary Degree would set a murky precedent,” said Nevin Kulangara, GSB ’15 and executive president of USG. “Some raised the concern that revoking a degree from one individual would require the University to apply the same level of scrutiny to other recipients of an Honorary Doctorate.”
“In other words,” Kulungara asked, “where is the line drawn?”
Anna Holt, FCRH ‘17, a USG representative of the sophomore class, said she finds this explanation frustrating.
“My question is, why [was] this precedent framed in such a negative light this evening?” Holt said. “Why wouldn’t we want to make high moral standards a norm for those carrying honors from Fordham?”
“That being said, I have faith in and respect for my fellow USG members and, although I personally do not agree, must respect the decision we came to as a whole,” she added.
FFAT was founded by seven faculty members in response to the Senate Intelligence Committee’s CIA torture report released in December 2014, which found that the CIA allowed a series of enhanced interrogation techniques such as waterboarding, hooding, sleep deprivation and forced stress positions on the grounds that they said yielded information vital to national security.
Brennan, who received his B.A. from Fordham in 1977, served as the director the National Counterterrorism Center from 2004 to 2005. He also served as the United States Homeland Security Advisor from 2009 to 2013.
Following the report’s release in December, Brennan, who became the director of the CIA in 2013, defended the CIA’s actions.
During a conference shortly after the report’s release, Brennan said that detainees subjected to “enhanced interrogation techniques provided information that was useful and was used in the ultimate operation to go against Bin Laden.”
As of this month, Father McShane has not indicated any intent to revoke Brennan’s degree, though he did meet with the group, according to a letter to Father McShane that the group has made public.
In its letter to the president, FFAT said that rewarding the Fordham alum with an honorary doctorate degree in 2012 and the Brien McMahon Award for Distinguished Public Service in 2014 was harmful to Fordham’s “moral fabric.”
The letter, signed by seven faculty members from a range of departments, calls for the need to repair the damage done by awarding the degree. Labeling its mission an “ethical first step toward restorative justice,” the letter states: “Only by acknowledging the fact that our country has erred in pursuing and defending practices condemned by the world community can the United States restore its leadership as a proponent of human rights.”
FFAT also calls for a public dialogue regarding the subject of torture and human rights and “on how, in the wake of the human rights violations committed by our government, we can advance the cause of restorative justice.”
So far, the group has received some support from students, among them Sawicki, who voted to support FFAT.
“Those who commit or are complicity in violations of national or international law are not worthy of being honored with Fordham, or any University’s, highest honors.” Sawicki said. “They stand in opposition to our tradition as a Jesuit, Catholic institution, as well as to our tradition as a University enlightened in the humanistic tradition.”
FFAT has a number of events planned for the semester, including a teach-in, scheduled for March 24.
Laura Sanicola and Joe Vitale contributed reporting.