TEMPE, ARIZONA - Universities typically confer an honorary degree on commencement speakers, particularly those who have reached the pinnacle of their career or achieved the top of their field. Arizona State University (ASU), though, says it will not confer an honorary degree on this year's commencement speaker, President Barack Obama, because "his body of work is yet to come."
ASU Media Relations Director Sharon Keeler says, unlike other universities, the processes for selecting commencement speakers and honorary degree recipients are independent. She says that honorary degrees are given "for an achievement of eminence" and that Obama was not considered for an honorary degree because his body of achievements, at this time, does not fit within that criteria.
Writing two best-sellers? Not outstanding. Developing one of the largest grassroots organizations in the world? Nothing special. Becoming the first African American President of the United States? Good, but nothing to write home about.
A local paper published an editorial within hours of the news, exhorting ASU to give the honorary degree to Obama:
Arizona State University has handed out honorary doctorate degrees to pioneering scientists and college presidents, titans of oil and computer microchips, newspaper publishers and generous donors, a foreign communist educator and a successful movie director.
But others had much still to accomplish. Barry Goldwater received his honorary degree in May 1961, three years before his Republican nomination for president and only eight years into his three decades as a U.S. senator. Sandra Day O'Connor was similarly recognized just three years in her 25 years on the U.S. Supreme Court.
The editorial called it an "odd gap" that the nation's first black president would not be deemed worthy of an honorary degree.
According to the ASU State Press, ASU President Michael Crow told the committee that "significant contributions to education and society over the course of a person's career merit consideration for an honorary degree."
If being a U.S. Senator and President of the United States -- the so-called leader of the free world -- is not enough to be deemed as having made significant contributions to society, Obama also has a long list of contributions to education. The first bill Obama sponsored in Congress was the HOPE Act. He developed comprehensive plans for students to receive education benefits in exchange for public service. Not to mention that he was the first African American president of the Harvard Law Review, taught Constitutional law at an ivy league university, and, among many other accomplishments, served as a community organizer where established an adult education program and a college preparatory program in inner-city Chicago. It is hard to see how these achievements fail to merit honor.
The ASU Honorary Degree Committee is made up of six members from across the campuses and is chaired by Dr. Laurie Chassin, a psychology professor. Keeler said Obama was not considered by the committee for an honorary degree and may not have even been nominated. According to university procedures, nominations may be submitted by members of the university family (including its 60,000+ students or even alumni) at any time during the academic year.
UPDATE: The ASU Honorary Degree Committee is co-chaired by Christine Wilkinson and Laurie Chassin. However, Laurie Chassin is currently on a year-long sabbatical and is not involved in evaluating this year's nominees.
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