Four years after Schlafly, Wash. U to award Gloria Steinem honorary degree

| Senior News Editor

Renowned feminist, writer and political activist Gloria Steinem will be one of six people to receive an honorary degree from Washington University at commencement this May.

The announcement follows the University’s decision four years ago to award political opposite Phyllis Schlafly with an honorary degree in 2008, a move that incited considerable controversy within the University community.

According to the administration, there are a number of factors that influence who is given an honorary degree.

“Generally speaking, the University looks for people who are recognized for their accomplishments in their chosen field and for individuals who are known to be good speakers. Sometimes the University gives special consideration to individuals with ties to the University, St. Louis or if their work is important to a particular focus area of the University,” Assistant to the Chancellor Rob Wild wrote in an email to Student Life.

“There is always a wide range of people to be considered and selected from a wide variety of backgrounds and social and political leanings,” he added. “Gloria Steinem clearly stands on her own as a person worthy of receiving an honorary degree from Washington University.”

The other recipients will be Richard Mahoney, the retired chair and CEO of Monsanto; C. Ronald Kahn, MD, the president and director of one of the world’s preeminent diabetes clinical and research organizations, the Joslin Center; Donald Suggs, DDS, publisher and executive editor of the St. Louis American, a weekly newspaper that serves the local African American community; and David Becker, JD, professor emeritus of the law of property and associate dean for external relations at the University’s School of Law.

Alumnus Mike Peters, this year’s commencement speaker and the creator of the “Mother Goose and Grimm” cartoons, will also be receiving an honorary degree. Peters graduated from Washington University in 1965 after getting his start as a staff cartoonist for Student Life.

The recipients, who were announced by the University on Thursday afternoon, will be awarded their degrees during the University’s commencement ceremony in Brookings Quadrangle on May 18.

  • shevek

    Four years ago it was a sop to the right (Schlafly). Now it’s a sop to the left (Steinem). When will it end?

    The most compelling reason the pro-Phyllis Schlafly folks made was that the commencement ceremony should be about the students and their parents. Well, we Schlafly protestors did not detract from the solemnity of the event. Arguably, we enhanced it, and we gave the potentially lackluster commencement speaker, Chris Matthews, something interesting to talk about, going on right in front of him. I received a surprise visit, just as I was firing up the grill for one of my BBQs to bring people together, from the chief Schlafly defender with a message from the College Republicans, to be delivered to the protest group, thanking us for the polite and civil way in which we were conducting our protest: wearing white arm bands and silently turning around. It cannot have been lost on the College Republicans that they too could use this tactic, endorsed by the University, whenever they have an unaddressed grievance, of which I am sure they have many. Awarding an honorary degree to Schlafly was a stroke of genius because when they pulled that rabbit out of their hat, they completely deflected attention from the big campus issue that had been building to a crescendo and perhaps a resolution: Lecturer’s Policy Reform and a real college teaching track (just search Studlife for Tzachi Zach, Professor of the Practice, and Jerome Bauer). Schlafly is such an iconic divisive lightning rod that the protest and counter-protests practically organized themselves. So why not do this every year? I have a modest proposal. In addition to the former Monsanto CEO who is really a shade of grey, why not award an honorary degree to Rush Limbaugh on the right and to the Bernardine Dohrn on the left, all fair and balanced? That way almost everybody and their parents would be wearing armbands and turning around, many more than once, and our commencement speaker, cartoonist Mike Peters, would have some good comedic material going on right in front of him. Unless we are prepared for this level of political theater, I say no honorary degrees.

    During the Schlafly controversy I was entirely consistent in opposing all honorary degrees given to non-scholars. This was the practice at my alma mater, The University of Chicago, and if the chief campus Schlafly defender, Rachel Reve Wisdom, had succeeded in persuading me that Phyllis Schlafly’s law journal articles qualified her as a scholar, I would have been honor bound to pull out of the protest. She conceded that Schlafly was not being honored for her scholarship but for her contributions to grass roots political organizing, and provided a really good bibliography. I and a small group read through this material in the summer of 08, and I get her point. Phyllis Schlafly’s tactics, including her use of political theater, could be used by anybody, including the Occupy movement and a commencement protest.

    My position has changed since then. Now I favor eliminating the honorary degree except as an exclusively internal service award, for distinguished college teachers, administrators, or community builders who are also fine scholars, especially if they lack a doctorate. The degree should be a rare honor, not a mere badge of seniority.

    As a point of honor, I will join any and all polite civil protests of this year’s honorary degrees if any are organized in such a way as to enhance this special day for our students and their parents.

    Jerome Bauer, under the transparent pseudonym shevek

    • shevek

      PS. All the hundreds of comments on Student Life’s coverage of the Schlafly honorary degree and its protestors are no longer visible, along with all the other comments posted before 2008. This includes Rachel Reve Wisdom’s extensive Schlafly bibliography. This was done just as Washington University’s Historical Archives sent us requests for permission to archive emails, discussion posts, flyers, buttons, etc. for posterity.

      Who is this “College Publisher Network” anyway?

  • JK

    WU would.