Commencement is a wonderful time for all involved, most of all the students who have worked tirelessly for their degrees. Fordham, like many schools, has a keynote speaker who, along with several other notable guests, is awarded an honorary degree. This meaningless tradition, which only diminishes the accomplishments of the young students who earn real degrees, must be stopped in light of recent information.
In 2012, John Brennan, FCRH ’77, was deputy national secretary advisor for President Obama’s administration when he was honored at Fordham’s commencement. After the disgraced General David Petraeus resigned, Brennan became the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Brennan has defended and advocated for the use of torture, and is responsible for unethical and questionably illegal spying techniques used by telecom companies on U.S. citizens.
When Brennan was announced as speaker and honoree, some members in the Fordham community rightly took offense. One member of the graduating class created an online petition saying “Fordham University is implicitly endorsing the ‘War on Terror,’ the use of rendition, the CIA’s heinous drone campaign, and the subversion of the rule of law in America, including the assassination of its own citizens.”
The petition continues, “as a member of the class of 2012, I strongly condemn such an endorsement and would like it to be known that John Brennan does not represent the Jesuit values that I have developed as a student at Fordham University.”
Orlando Rodriguez was one of seven faculty members who founded Fordham Faculty Against Torture (FFAT), a group created last school year in response to the release of a senate report on torture. FFAT created an online petition, which currently has 747 signees, in hopes of revoking Brennan’s honorary degree.
FFAT pointed out that “the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops explicitly supported the McCain Feinstein bill to prohibit torture.” The founders of FFAT also mentioned a remark Pope Francis made: “Torturing people is a mortal sin. It is a very serious sin.” The founders of FFAT and I agree that honoring “one of the main architects of our questionable counter-terrorism policy” is irresponsible for a school that prides itself on the Jesuit tenet of “men and women for others.”
FFAT also believes that by not revoking his degree, Fordham is implicitly saying that torture is permissible and “makes us complicit in the truth-bending efforts by our government to not mention the word torture, to call it by euphemisms that make us complicit in torture if we go along with them.”
Last spring, the board of trustees unanimously voted to not rescind Brennan’s honor, instead calling out Congress and the president for being accountable for what is clearly Mr. Brennan’s job and responsibility.
Brennan still has an honorary degree from Fordham.
In 2001, Fordham awarded comedian and actor Bill Cosby with an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts. At the time, he was extremely respected in the entertainment industry for being a pioneer for African-Americans in television. Cosby had previously been accused of sexual misconduct, but in the fall of 2014 a scandal broke and at least 51 women have come forward to claim Cosby had raped or sexually assaulted them in some way, with allegations dating for crimes as far back as 1968. Court depositions have shone light on the fact that Cosby purchased drugs such as Quaaludes to use on women he targeted sexually.
Until last week, Cosby, despite all the news, still had an honorary degree from Fordham.
By not rescinding honorary degrees, Fordham is failing to live up to its Jesuit mission and values.
For a while, the fact that Fordham had never before rescinded an honorary degree was an excuse the administration had made to continuously turn a blind eye. However, just because there is no precedent does not mean we should not create one.
Even Bill Cosby thinks that change is good, as he said in his keynote speech, which is available on Fordham’s website. He said “People change what they want to do all the time. It’s okay to do that. It’s okay to change.” He also uttered a more ominous line in that speech: “The outside world has no assurances, it has no structure and nobody plays fair,” a sentence applicable to his misdeeds.
Honoring these men is as egregious as awarding Henry Kissinger the Noble Peace Prize, but apparently we live in a universe where both can, and do happen.
I sent Robert Howe, the senior director of communications for Fordham University, an email regarding the degrees of Mr. Brennan and Mr. Cosby on Sept. 17. In the email, I asked him various questions including why Fordham had not revoked Cosby’s honorary degree after many other schools have done so, if Fordham cared about the victims of sexual abuse and if the University is committed to its Jesuit values and mission. I waited patiently for a response, and it came in the form of an e-mail sent to the entire Fordham community on Sept. 24.
In an official University Statement sent by Mr. Howe on behalf of the Office of the President, it was announced that Bill Cosby’s degree had been revoked. The trustees had voted unanimously to revoke his degree that day, eight months after other schools and companies started separating themselves from the fallen star. The school took the proper measures, but did so slowly.
The last line of the email, “as a Jesuit university, Fordham could no longer stand behind the degree it had bestowed upon Mr. Cosby, hence this unprecedented action,” shows that Fordham can take unprecedented actions when needed.
Cosby and Brennan are not the only examples of dishonorable men that Fordham has bestowed degrees upon. Newscaster Brian Williams spoke at the 2011 Commencement and was thus awarded an honorary degree from Fordham. In 2015, the country’s most famous newsman was found to have embellished stories, compromising his journalistic integrity. He served a six month suspension, and NBC reassigned him to MSNBC. He resigned as a member of the board directors for the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation. His actions are not as reprehensible as those of Brennan or Cosby, but we should not be honoring a man who shirked his responsibilities and acted irresponsibly.
Williams still has an honorary degree from Fordham.
In 1972, then Secretary General of the United Nations, Kurt Waldheim spoke at Fordham’s commencement. Although Waldheim was a noted diplomat and would later serve as President of Austria, he was a Nazi during World War II. During the war, Waldheim was a lieutenant in the army intelligence. During his life, he lied about his involvement, denied any wrongdoing and insisted that he knew not of the atrocities committed by the Nazis. Evidence and common sense seem to contradict Waldheim’s stance and show a man who refused to take proper action.
Waldheim, dead for eight years, still has an honorary degree from Fordham.
The Fordham administration cannot expect its students to develop and grow based on its mission and values if it does not hold itself to the same standard and reward disgusting people.
Having a committee of faculty and students to select and approve of the awardees of honorary degrees would be a positive step for Fordham. FFAT recalls that last year, one department chair suggested having University department chairs act as an ad hoc committee for the selection process. However, a choice like Bill Cosby can still slip through the cracks, because the person may be considered honorable at the time but might commit heinous acts later or fall out of grace from the publication of new information.
Fordham must stop awarding honorary degrees altogether. These arbitrary honors are meaningless and can only result in negative publicity for the University. Nobody is perfect and there may very well be many people who are adored and worshipped but have controversies in hiding. Any celebrity or person with a bit of spotlight can be honored by a school, making the title insignificant. Just ask Dr. Kermit the Frog and Dr. Kanye West, who have been so honored by colleges.
Fordham would not be alone in its absence of honorary degrees. Cornell, MIT, Stanford and Rice are prestigious universities across the country that do not award honorary degrees. In addition, the University of Virginia has never had an honorary degree since its creation in 1817, due to the bequest of founder Thomas Jefferson. These schools have gotten along just fine without honorary degrees. Why can’t we?
Matthew Michaels, GSB ’17, is a marketing major from Hightstown, NJ.