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Brian Leiter
University of Chicago Law School

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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Association of Women Faculty at Wash U Collects Statements Opposing Awarding an Honorary Degree to Phyllis Schafly

Here.  Time is running out (graduation is this weekend!) for Wash U to make amends for this embarrassing mistake.  But so far, there's no indication that they realize the magnitude of the error; the University has issued a statement written in bureaucratise:

Alumna Phyllis Schlafly's articulation of her perspectives has been a significant part of American life during the last half of the 20th century and now the 21st century, serving as a lightning rod for vigorous debate on difficult issues where differences of opinion are profound and passionate.  Not only should a university serve as a place where such discussions take place, but it may also choose to recognize those who provide leadership and articulation — both pro and con — on vital issues. When the University awards an honorary degree, it does so without endorsing viewpoints or taking sides on such issues.

I do wonder whether the people who write nonsense like this believe what they are writing.  First of all, the issue has nothing to do with free discussion:  any group that wants to invite Ms. Schafly to campus to present her 'ideas' should be free to do so, and no one would be talking about this if that's all that had happened.  But an "honorary degree" is, of course, an "endorsement," honoring someone for their contributions.  In Schafly's case that means honoring someone who has consistently advocated for the subordinate role of women in society (who has, e.g., called for women to be excluded from numerous professions, mocked the idea of marital rape, and opposed innumerable laws protecting the rights of women in the workplace), and promoted bigotry against immigrants, creationism, and various crackpot conspiracy theories.  As the Association of Women Faculty at Wash U puts it:

As researchers we are committed to reaching conclusions via reasoned and balanced inquiry, and we rigorously train our students in such practice. By contrast, Ms. Schlafly's core convictions – that women are intellectually inferior, that American Indians are heathens, that homosexuals are ill, that biological evolution is untrue -- are presented in her writings and lectures as unsubstantiated claims. Your argument that her claims have served, in your words, as “a lightning rod for vigorous debate on difficult issues where differences of opinion are profound and passionate” is disconcertingly specious. In the academy, honor is given to those who back up their opinions with careful documentation and analysis. It is not given to loose cannons in the classroom, and it should not be given to loose cannons in the public arena.

We are deeply concerned that conferring on Ms. Schlafly an honorary degree will compromise our commitment to recruit and retain women students and faculty, and it will set back decades of effort to establish Washington University as a center of intellectual excellence, transforming us into “that school who honored -- can you believe? -- Phyllis Schlafly.

They are right to be concerned.  Washington University has been mighty concerned with "branding" its image in recent years, but presumably the idea was not to be branded with a scarlet letter. 

The University's statement, above, continues:

Washington University has honored many individuals in the past from all aspects of the political spectrum, including civil rights leaders Jesse Jackson and Julian Bond; political leaders as diverse as Madeleine Albright, John Major, Patricia Schroeder, John C. Danforth, Paul Simon and Richard Gephardt; educational leaders such as Ruth Simmons and Henry Louis Gates; and members of the media including Tom Friedman, George Will, Tim Russert and this year's commencement speaker, Chris Matthews.

But Schafly is unlike anyone on this list:  she alone peddles bigotry, contempt for intellectual work and scientific knowledge, and ridicule of universities.   It is hard to know what analogy would really capture the choice to 'honor' a disgraceful know-nothing like this:  an honorary degree for Rush Limbaugh, perhaps?  Or Don Imus?

If the University "honors" Schafly, one may expect that this will have a tangible impact on faculty recruitment and retention over the next year.

UPDATE:  Around midday, Chancellor Mark Wrighton sent out an e-mail indicating that the school will award an honorary degree to Ms. Schafly.  What a sad day for Washington University.  Ironically, one of the few areas where Wash U is a leader nationally and internationally is in medicine and allied areas of biological research.  For a university whose reputation depends so heavily on excellence in biology to honor an ignoramus who regularly mocks the foundation of biological science, the theory of evolution by natural selection, is almost unbelievable.   Wash U must be deeply beholden to money from the far right to have tarnished its reputation so profoundly.

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