On Thursday, a community forum was held in Founders’ Great Hall to address concerns raised about the invitation to award the former University of California, Berkeley chancellor Robert Birgeneau an honorary degree at Commencement on May 18.
Honorary degree recipients were announced in April in an email from President Daniel H. Weiss, who described Birgeneau as “a champion of diversity and accessibility in higher education.” Birgeneau is a longtime supporter of undocumented students and LGBT rights.
Birgeneau, however, has also attracted criticism for his role in the 2011 Occupy Cal movement at UC Berkeley. While protesting increased tuition fees, nonviolent protesters were subjected to police force after breaking the University’s no encampment policy.
After the announcement, a group of 50 students and professors sent a letter to Birgeneau, expressing that they were “deeply disturbed by the events at UC Berkeley on November, 9th, 2011, as well as your statements that followed.” The letter called for Birgeneau to act on nine conditions, which included taking responsibility for his actions and writing an open letter to the Haverford community.
“First, I have never and will never respond to lists of demands,” Birgeneau wrote in response. “Second, as a long time civil rights activist and firm supporter of non-violence, I do not respond to untruthful, violent verbal attacks.”
The letter and Birgeneau’s response prompted Thursday’s forum, the goal of which was to discuss “how our community engages in dissent,” as stated in another campus-wide email from Weiss. Students, faculty, staff, Corporation members, and members of the Board of Managers attended the forum, which began at 5 p.m.
Weiss began the forum by introducing Elizabeth Enloe, clerk of the Honorary Degree Committee, who described the selection process for honorary degree recipients. The Committee, who receives nominations from the entire Haverford community, is tasked with narrowing this number down to 6 candidates. This list is then presented to the president and the Board, who make the final selections.
Enloe said that when the Committee decided to include Birgeneau in the short list, his involvement with Occupy Cal was not ignored.
“The lifetime of this individual lead us to bring his name forward,” Enloe said. “We still are in a position to believe that the invitation was appropriate and well-sent.”
Associate professor of physics Suzanne Kane agreed with this line of thought.
“It’s the fabric of their lives that I’m honoring,” she said of the honorary degree recipients. Citing his support of women, the LGBT community, and undocumented students, Kane described Birgeneau as someone who has “always been someone who has cared deeply about civil rights.”
However, others disagreed this approach. Political science associate professor Anita Isaacs cited Haverford’s commitment to peace and nonviolence as a Quaker institution as one of the reasons for her concern.
“I’m a little concerned about honoring someone who does not seem to have abided by those values,” Isaacs said.
“I don’t want people to forget the experience of people who were beaten,” said associate professor of English Maud McInerney. “[Birgeneau’s achievements] don’t cancel this out.”
McInerney also applauded the letter sent to Birgeneau, saying that the tone was appropriate and warranted. A UC Berkeley graduate, McInerney was also been a signatory on a 2011 letter to Birgeneau from a UC Berkeley group. McInerney described the Berkeley letter as having been “more politely-worded.”
“And guess what? It never got an answer,” McInerney said.
The question of whether or not the letter to Birgeneau was appropriate was one of the most heavily discussed topics of the forum. One student described the letter as “incredibly threatening,” while others were less extreme in their assessment.
“We sort of entered the dialogue with a conclusion, and wanted to work backwards,” said George Ordiway ‘16. “We need to approach with a slightly more open mind and be willing to accept that there might be extraneous circumstances that exist.”
The letter’s effectiveness was also discussed. Zakary Oglesby ‘17 noted that the nine conditions listed were designed to model resolutions proposed in Honor Council trials, but said that this was misguided.
“There was no trial conducted, we never heard his side of the story,” Oglesby said. “We should have first been in the right to seek a dialogue with him, before coming out with demands.”
Others expressed support for the movement against Birgeneau. Among them was visiting professor Andrew Cornell, a postdoctoral fellow with the Hurford Center for the Arts and Humanities. Cornell referred to the letter as a “brilliant piece of rhetoric.”
“We should be honoring the students who wrote this letter,” Cornell said. “It would be irresponsible of students not for students to address these issues in some way.”
Cornell also expressed support for the nine conditions that the students asked Birgeneau to consider.
“Any good negotiator knows that you demand more in your opening gambit and then you can negotiate,” Cornell said.
In addition to the letter itself, Birgeneau’s response was also discussed by many as well. Some sympathized with him, going as far to say that they would have responded in the same way if they had received such a letter.
However, there seemed to be a consensus in the room that Birgeneau’s reply indicated that he was not willing to engage in discussion.
“While the tone of the letter was not as diplomatic as it could have been,” said Kathryn Dorn ‘14, “describing the letter as a violent verbal attack does not seem to demonstrate that he was willing to engage in any type of dialogue.”
“There is an assumption that Dr. Birgeneau is interested in dialogue,” Isaacs said. “From his response to students, he doesn’t seem interested in dialogue.”
However, Isaacs offered a resolution as well.
“A way forward may be an open discussion with Dr. Birgeneau,” Isaacs suggested.
Kane agreed, but expressed her concern that the chance for such a discussion was gone.
“I would have liked the community to have an opportunity to define that dialogue, and I worry that opportunity has been taken away,” Kane said.
The forum ended shortly before 7:30 p.m. on a note of uncertainty. One of the last speakers was Sarah Willie-LeBreton ‘86, a member of the Corporation, the Board, and the Honorary Degree Committee, who said that the situation would be reevaluated.
“I believe in consensus, and I don’t think this community is in consensus in inviting Dr. Birgeneau for an honorary degree,” Willie-LeBreton said.
Weiss confirmed over email the next morning that the next steps are being discussed with the Board. Whether Birgeneau will be at Commencement is unclear.
“I don’t think he’s going to come at this point – I think it’s highly unlikely,” said Michael Rushmore ‘14, the student who spearheaded the letter to Birgeneau.
Rushmore, who has been in contact with Weiss about this issue since the honorary degree recipients were announced, was pleased with the outcome of the forum.
“I have to applaud Dan for putting together this meeting and letting it run its course,” said Rushmore. “I hope that students in the future can keep up this pressure.”
All photos by Joe Seiler ’14.