EDITORIAL: Honorary degree selection process needs reform
On Sept. 12, University President Ron Liebowitz sent an email to the Brandeis community requesting the community to submit nominations for honorary degree recipients to be celebrated at the 2020 commencement exercises. The President described an honorary degree as a great way to recognize and commend the achievements of figures who have been highly influential in academics, politics, the arts and through activism. In the past, the University has maintained a website through which anyone could submit a nomination for an honorary degree recipient, but this year’s decision to send an email ensures that the Brandeis community is aware of this opportunity.
This board welcomes this new trend, and President Liebowitz and the administration deserve praise for their willingness to listen to the community and involve them in deciding whose accomplishments the University chooses to formally recognize, as these decisions can alter the University’s international profile.
The University has previously awarded honorary degrees to many distinguished individuals, including high-profile figures. such as current Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, former President John. F. Kennedy and former Israeli Prime-Minister Golda Meir. However, this board urges the Brandeis community to proceed with caution during this nomination process, as the credibility of those receiving honorary degrees, and thereby the credibility of the University, can be called into question if the process is not taken seriously.
Prior to the 2019 University commencement exercises, one Justice Forum writer discovered that several intended recipients had close ties to the administration and the University Board of Trustees, raising suspicions that the ostensibly democratic selection process was little more than an exercise in self-congratulation. Two recipients, Perry Traquina and Barbara Mandel, were members of the Board of Trustees during the time in which the administration had re-evaluated its selection process for honorary degree recipients. Additionally, Mandel and her family already have influence over the University’s endowment and physical appearance, as the Mandel Center for the Humanities was named after her husband Morton, and the auditorium within it was named after her. The writer correctly, in the opinion of this board, reached the conclusion that the University was pandering to its donors and top financiers rather than selecting community-nominated individuals of significant intellectual, cultural or artistic merit. This conscious decision on the part of the University equates donating a lot of money with the lifelong pursuit of virtue.
This board has two chief recommendations for the University and its greater community: first, the University should reconsider its process for selecting who earns these coveted awards, and should create a process that ensures that community input and values are prioritized. Second, the greater community should contribute their ideas to the selection process while maintaining cautious optimism in light of the past mistakes that the University has made in this regard.