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Brian Leiter
University of Chicago Law School

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Thursday, May 15, 2008

Kuhns v. Wrighton on the Schafly Honorary Degree Scandal

As noted yesterday (see the Update), Chancellor Mark Wrighton of Washington University, St. Louis has defended, in a letter to the university community, the decision to award know-nothing bigot Phyllis Schlafly an honorary degree.  Here is the crux of Chancellor Wrighton's letter:

I write to address the controversy surrounding the decision to award Phyllis Schlafly an honorary degree at Commencement this Friday, May 16, 2008. I am sorry that this controversy may detract from Commencement.  However, the Trustees, the University administration and I fully support the rights of our students and others within this community to express their concerns on this issue.

Our long-standing process for awarding the honorary degree was followed:  Mrs. Schlafly was nominated by a member of the community and was reviewed by the Board's Honorary Degree Committee.  The Committee included faculty, students, trustees and administrators. After two meetings, Mrs. Schlafly and other nominees were recommended unanimously for consideration at the full Board meeting.  The full Board voted to award the honorary degree at the May 2007 meeting.

Following the public announcement of the honorary degrees, many in the University community have called for the University to rescind that offer, stating that Mrs. Schlafly is associated with some views, opinions and statements that are inconsistent with the tolerant and inclusive values of the Washington University community. Personally, I do not endorse her views or opinions, and in many instances, I strongly disagree with them.

However, after further consultation with members of the University's Board of Trustees, the University has concluded that it will fulfill its commitment to award the degree to Mrs. Schlafly.  I apologize for the anguish this decision has caused to many members of our community.

In bestowing this degree, the University is not endorsing Mrs. Schlafly's views or opinions; rather, it is recognizing an alumna of the University whose life and work have had a broad impact on American life and have sparked widespread debate and controversies that in many cases have helped people better formulate and articulate their own views about the values they hold....

In the midst of this controversy, I want to affirm my personal and the University's institutional commitment to strengthening diversity and inclusiveness and to improving gender balance. Additionally, I have made a commitment that the University will review the process for awarding honorary degrees and will propose appropriate changes.

Washington University is home to students and faculty from all walks of life, from most systems of religious belief and political thought, and from all corners of the world. Yet we do not require these widely diverse individuals to agree with one another. We are stronger because disagreement allows us the opportunity to speak as individuals and as advocates for sometimes widely divergent agendas. Collegial dialogue and discourse inform us as to our feelings and help guide an institution that nurtures debate and tolerance.  A university is strengthened by exchanges that may be strongly worded, and that may have been born from the passions and rhetoric of disagreement.

Washington University - or any other university - is neither perfect nor are all its processes for making decisions.  We can always do better.  In the aftermath of Commencement, I am deeply committed to whatever work needs to be done to rebuild damaged relationships with members of our community -- faculty, students, alumni, parents, trustees and staff.  I thank you for all that you do to make this a community so open, tolerant and inclusive, and I ask for your assistance as we work together to build the very best environment for all who live, learn, discover and create
here.

Wash U law professor Richard Kuhns agreed to let me share his astute and sharply worded reply to Chancellor Wrighton:

Your defense of the decision to grant an honorary degree to Phyllis Schlafly adds insult to injury.

A substantive defense of the decision, with which I obviously would disagree, would at least be understandable. Instead you have engaged in subterfuge and, to say the least, what borders on dishonesty.

From a procedural standpoint, the initial decision was not unanimous; and even if the "process" technically was followed, student member of the committee have already disavowed the decision.

More important, the notion that the honorary degree "is not endorsing Mrs. Schlaflys’ views or opinions" is ludicrous. An honorary degree, of course, is not an endorsement of everything a recipient has said; but it is unmistakably an endorsement of the general principles for which the recipient stands; and as I and a number of my colleagues have pointed out, Ms. Schlafly’s principles are antithetical to the values for which Washington University purports to stand.

Indeed, Phyllis Schlafly’s recent statements referring to the protesters - hundreds of faculty and students - as "a bunch of bitter women," "a bunch of losers," who need "to get a life" only highlights how antithetical her views are to those of rational discourse that should prevail in a great university.

By embracing the decision to grant Phyllis Schlafly an honorary degree and at the same time "fully support[ing] the rights of our students and others within this community to express their concerns on this issue," you have invited and, indeed, encouraged the protest that will certainly take place at what should be a time of great celebration, not disagreement.

The issue, contrary to your statement, has never been one of tolerating diverse points of view. Rather, it has been whether Washington University should honor bigotry and anti-intellectualism.

Given your empty defense of the University’s decision, your pious commitment to "rebuild damaged relationships with our community" rings hollow.

Washington University in St. Louis plainly needs new leadership.  Any leader of a serious research university--Wrighton is a scientist no less!--who at the dawn of the 21st-century could not foresee the inappropriateness of "honoring" a woman who mocks basic biological science, derides the idea of marital rape, demeans and opposes the aspirations of professional women, and makes bigoted remarks about immigrants, homosexuals, and "liberals" (among many others) is a leader who has lost his intellectual compass. 

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