Northwestern University Commencement Controversy Swirls as Alumni, Students and Staff Raise Questions

Share Article

Black Alumni and Students Challenge Northwestern University Process of Awarding Honorary Degrees and Selection of Commencement Speakers. The Groups Demands Answers. Honorary Degree Awardees of different races got very different treatment and outcomes.

News Image

The Reverend Dr. Jeremiah Wright loses Northwestern University honorary degree for his words, while the University overlooks the deeds of Mayor Daley and will grant Daley an honorary degree at commencement.

It seems clear that the University maintains a color line for controversial people. Controversial white people can speak and receive honorary degrees. Controversial black people can't be given a degree. We believe the University must use the academic tradition to get to the bottom of any controversy serious enough to warrant rescinding a degree

An online petition is racing through Northwestern alumni, students and the larger community challenging a decision to rescind an honorary degree awarded to Rev. Jeremiah Wright that was supposed to be presented at the upcoming commencement exercises. The petition started by the Northwestern Black Alumni Association (NUBAA) demands among other things, that the honorary degree be restored. In 10 days, the petition has garnered more than 1,350 signatures. The petition can be found on line at http://www.petitiononline.com/mod_perl/signed.cgi?JWHD1&1.

Reverend Wright is the only candidate from the fall of 2007 whose degree was rescinded. In a statement released on May 1, 2008, Northwestern spokesman Alan Cubbage said the university was concerned that the furor over Wright would disrupt the June commencement ceremonies. ''In light of the controversy around Dr. Wright and to ensure the celebratory character of commencement not be affected, the university has withdrawn its invitation to Dr. Wright,'' Cubbage said. There are few people awarded an honorary degree that are later subjected to a serious effort to rescind the degree.

However, questions also have been raised about both the law school graduation and the university graduation. The law school commencement speaker is television host Jerry Springer. The university commencement speaker is Mayor Richard Daley.

On April 28, 2008 the Chicago Tribune ran an article about the controversy over Jerry Springer being a speaker at the law school commencement. Most recently, the media has done stories regarding the student controversy over the speaker at the University graduation, Mayor Richard M. Daley. Students have complained loudly to the University about this choice. The Chicago Business Daily, hundreds of students have criticized the choice, calling it "lame" and a "letdown" in comments on the Web site of the Daily Northwestern, the student newspaper. One student even wrote to Mr. Bienen, saying he would not attend the ceremony because Mr. Daley will speak. Mr. Bienen fired back, telling the student to "grow up." No students have complained to the Administration about Wright's degree.

NUBAA raises a specific question of fairness. In February 2007, Northwestern University's Law Clinic issued a press release when it named Mayor Daley as a defendant in the notorious Burge civil case. On February 14, 2007, cbs2chicago.com reported ''Mayor Richard M. Daley was added Wednesday as a defendant in a civil suit alleging that city officials have conspired for 25 years to cover up the torture of suspects by Chicago police.'' The cbs2chicago.com report stated ''[t]he mayor has done nothing about a pattern of torture -- a shameful episode in the history of this city,'' [Daryl] Cannon attorney G. Flint Taylor said during a news conference at which he announced the fresh complaint naming Daley. The cbs2chicago.com report goes on to say ''[t]he newly filed complaint alleges that Daley, Byrne and top police officials were aware of ''the pattern and practice of torture and abuse at Area 2, the cover-up of that abuse and the wrongful prosecutions and convictions which resulted therefrom.''

The cbs2chicago.com report says that Daley, Byrne and police officials ''failed to intervene to stop defendant Burge and his Area 2 coconspirators from continuing their coercive interrogations and torture tactics.'' Burge is accused of torturing confessions out black defendants in Chicago. The mayor is accused of participating in a conspiracy to cover up the facts of torture that occurred while he was the State's Attorney. The press release can be found on line at http://www.law.northwestern.edu/macarthur/documents/police/2_14_07_PressRelease.pdf. NUBAA contends that Northwestern has specific knowledge of controversy regarding the Mayor, yet will allow him to speak and receive an honorary degree, while Reverend Wright has been humiliated and disgraced for an alleged thought crime

"It seems clear that the University maintains a color line for controversial people. Controversial white people can speak and receive honorary degrees. Controversial black people can't be given a degree. We believe the University must use the academic tradition to get to the bottom of any controversy serious enough to warrant rescinding a degree," said Ce Cole Dillon, President Black Alumni Association (NUBAA).

The petition asks for Rev. Wright's degree to be awarded, as previously planned, at the upcoming commencement. The petition also asks for a complete inquiry into the process that was involved in the decision to not award the degree. NUBAA contends the degree rescission is the latest in a series of negative portrayals for Northwestern University, which was just listed by the Journal of Black Higher Education as one of the four highest-ranked universities to show a decrease in black first year enrollments during the period of 1998 to 2007...under the presidency of Henry Bienan.

# # #

Share article on social media or email:

View article via:

Pdf Print

Contact Author

Visit website