Award for What?

U. of Denver, facing protest from students and others, still plans to honor President George W. Bush, but perhaps not for "improving the human condition."

July 5, 2013
President George W. Bush

The University of Denver is sticking by its plan to honor President George W. Bush. But, in response to protests, the nature of the honor may be changing.

Each year, the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at Denver holds a fund-raising dinner where a big-name outside speaker receives an award and serves as a draw for supporters of the school. Tables of 10 start at $4,000 and go all the way up to $15,000. And $50,000 will get you three tables of 10 and other features, such as podium recognition by the master of ceremonies.

This year, the honoree is to be President Bush, well-known to the dean, Christopher R. Hill, who served in his State Department and as his ambassador to Poland and South Korea.

What set off protests was the announcement on invitations to the September event that President Bush would be honored for "improving the human condition."

To some students, professors and alumni, that just didn't make sense. An online petition has gained considerable attention (plus a Facebook page) at Denver in the last week,

"We do not believe that George W. Bush reflects the values, character, and leadership of an appropriate 'improving the human condition' awardee," the petition states. "As President, George W. Bush’s choices resulted in greater instability and economic hardship worldwide, while even his laudable achievements, like the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) were sullied by the promotion of an agenda that hampered prevention and treatment efforts. This is evidenced in the recent Supreme Court decision that ruled certain requirements of the PEPFAR program unconstitutional. Former President George W. Bush left behind a legacy of human rights abuses, including the torture of detainees in extra-territorial jails, preemptive war, domestic surveillance programs, and other egregious actions that deleteriously impact the human condition."

Comments on Twitter include numerous tweets suggesting that Denver degrees have been tarnished, and suggestions that Bush should receive an "improving human torture award."

Others defended the honor and saw political correctness at play in the protests. A columnist for The Denver Post questioned whether there would have been a similar reaction to an award for President Obama, whose use of drone warfare has not gone over well with many advocates for human rights. Of the controversy, Vincent Carroll wrote: "George W. Bush is the gift that keeps on giving to left-leaning college faculty intent on proclaiming their moral superiority."

A spokeswoman for the university noted that past honorees have come from a range of political views. Indeed the late Josef Korbel, who taught at Denver and for whom the international studies school is named, had ties to prominent Democrats (Madeline Korbel Albright, President Clinton's ambassador to the United Nations and secretary of state, is his daughter) and Republicans (Condoleezza Rice, President Bush's secretary of state, was a student who considered him a mentor). Both Albright and Rice have been past recipients of the honor at Denver.

The spokeswoman added that President Bush was "an obvious choice" given that "he is the 21st century's first two-term president."

As the controversy has grown, critics noted that the website promoting the dinner no longer refers to President Bush receiving an award for "improving the human condition." The page now simply says that President Bush will be honored.

Hill, the dean and former ambassador, said via e-mail that it now looks like there will be a different honor for the former president. "We were toying with 'improving human condition,' " he said. But the university was already "leaning to calling it the 'global service' award when the u-know-what hit the fan. I liked human condition, but we are probably going with something different, alas." Hill added that "frankly I think it is a great honor that the former president" is going to attend the dinner.


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