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Yesterday’s hero can be today’s tyrant. New revelations and changing opinion can alter the context of accolades once deemed sensible. As a result, several universities are taking another look at their processes for awarding honorary degrees after a recurring controversy over one of the most prominent African tyrants in recent years.
Robert Mugabe, president of Zimbabwe, was showered with praise when he helped establish the independence of his country, formerly Rhodesia, in 1979 and end white rule when he won the first open elections as prime minister. As his rule continued, human rights groups began criticizing his methods and scholars blamed the country’s steady decline on his policies.
At least three institutions in the U.S. and Britain have awarded honorary degrees to Mugabe – and some at each of these institutions are having second thoughts:
- Edinburgh University, in Scotland, in 1984.
- The University of Massachusetts at Amherst, in 1986.
- Michigan State University, in 1990.
“Anyone with anything to do with Edinburgh University will want them to remove his degree and take steps to distance the university from this ogre and do it as soon as possible,” stated James MacMillan, an Edinburgh graduate and conductor with the BBC Philharmonic, in an op-ed in The Scotsman.
The discussions within the universities come years after Mugabe’s human rights record was made known, and at a time when violence and threats against the political opposition in Zimbabwe have again made front-page news. On Wednesday, the Associated Press reported that the main opposition party leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, and others were arrested – two weeks after they accused the government of smashing his head against a wall while again in custody. (Mugabe himself has been quoted as saying that he holds several “degrees in violence.”)
But in the 1980s, things seemed different. “I think Zimbabwe’s independence was seen as a precursor for South Africa’s independence” from white minority rule, said Joye Bowman, a professor of history at UMass-Amherst. Awarding the honorary degrees “were logical decisions at the time. It was a proper decision at a hopeful moment.”
For the most part, officials of these universities have emphasized the procedures (or lack thereof) involved in granting and revoking such degrees rather than comment on their appropriateness. Edinburgh is actively “reviewing” Mugabe’s degree and considering whether to impose limits on awards to celebrities; a spokesman at the UMass president’s office emphasized that the university has never withdrawn such a degree before and that it’s “taking a look” at the issue.
At UMass, guidelines specify that recipients of honorary degrees possess “great accomplishment and high ethical standards” and must be approved by the Board of Trustees. (Each campus in the system awards its own degrees.) At Michigan State, they are given “in recognition of distinguished accomplishment and service within the scope of the arts and letters, sciences and the professions, and public service....”
Many students and faculty members have been critical of the failure of institutions to revoke the Mugabe honors – years after his conduct was well established. At Michigan State, the undergraduate student government began lobbying for the degree’s revocation in 2005. The Edinburgh students’ association passed a resolution last year demanding the same. An official of Zimbabwe’s opposition Movement for Democratic Change party, Tom Nyandoro, emphasized that withdrawing such degrees is one of many tools available to outside groups seeking to pressure for change and said that “we strongly feel that it should have been done at least five years ago when Mugabe’s regime brutality was fully exposed to the world.”
The degree from Michigan State, awarded several years after the other two, has a somewhat different history, reflecting the university’s ties with Zimbabwe over the years.
“The honorary degree was carefully worded not in terms of honoring [Mugabe] as a person but to honor the linkage between Michigan State and the University of Zimbabwe which he represented,” said David Wiley, a professor of sociology and director of the African Studies Center.
The representation is literal: Mugabe is, officially at least, the chancellor of the University of Zimbabwe. But for years the center, which has the largest African studies faculty in the nation, also had the most expansive American university partnership in Africa, according to Wiley, with over 600 student and faculty exchanges. (Michigan State continues to host Zimbabwe faculty but not to send people there.)
Wiley added that there hasn’t been a formal university review of the decision. “Since it was in honor of the linkage with Zimbabwe more than it was of him as a person, the thought was to maybe leave it in place,” said Wiley, who believes the degree shouldn’t be revoked. He noted that plenty of honorary degree recipients – Vice President Cheney and President Clinton have also been honored at Michigan State – have done controversial things after receiving their degrees.
“My own sense is that if the university were to want to consider revoking that, then it would have to … review all of its honorary degrees – were they honorable people? Are we happy in retrospect?”