EDITORIAL: Scrutinize commencement invitee process
As April approaches, the University community awaits the annual release of this year’s commencement speaker and honorary degree recipients. This year’s choices will likely prove significant to both the Class of 2015 and the University’s public image—student and faculty outcry alike against last year’s invitation of activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali as an honorary degree recipient led to the University’s formal disinvitation and subsequent national media scandal.
This board urges the Board of Trustees to consider the lessons of that scandal as they finalize their selections for the upcoming commencement in May, but also not to let fear of controversy guide their decision process. While University politics and public reception will undoubtedly be factored into the final decision, we ask the University community to remember the ultimate purpose of commencement: to celebrate the student body and the newest cohort of Brandeis alumni.
We feel that the most important factor in this year’s invitations is that the Board of Trustees and the Office of the President complete thorough background research on each of the potential speakers and honorary degree candidates during the vetting process. In the same statement in which the University disinvited Hirsi Ali, the University claimed “we were not aware” of her widely publicized comments on Islam, to which many in our community took offense.
That the University claimed ignorance to widely publicized and heavily criticized public statements implies an unacceptable lack of research into those receiving a significant honor.
Thorough vetting, we believe, is an absolute necessity to prevent both the Board and the Brandeis community from being taken by surprise by the work of those we invite to our commencement.
That being said, we are wary against selections made on an entirely reactionary basis: we hope that the Board will be bold in their selections and choose people who will reflect the diversity and interests of the graduating class.
The selections for honorary degrees should reflect the values of social justice; the values that University strives to impart on its students and those chosen should exemplify to those values.
Moreover, only five women and four people of color have been awarded honorary degrees in the last five years, out of 26 degrees handed out during the same time frame.
We urge the Board to strive to include a diverse group for this year, while still maintaining the thorough research necessary considering last year’s backlash.
With the scrutiny surrounding last year’s commencement activities, it would be natural for the Board to take a potentially overly conservative approach when selecting this year’s honorary degree recipients.
We urge the Board to remember the purpose of the day—the celebration of the graduating students. This year, when there will likely be a heightened focus on who is selected, we urge the Board to select a diverse group of recipients, reflective of the diverse campus on which we live.