Michael M. Crow, president of Arizona State University, tells POLITICO that the school is reconsidering its widely mocked plans not to give President Obama an honorary degree when he speaks at commencement on May 13, and will “honor him in every way possible.”
“There was no intended slight,” Crow said by telephone from his office in Tempe. “We had not yet talked about what honors we might give him as our commencement speaker, and we still have a month to work all that out. We don’t want anyone to thin we do not recognize what he has achieved, and what he means in America.”
A formal decision has not been made, but it was clear from Crow's comments that the university is headed in that direction. ASU risked becoming a national punch line if it did not quickly retreat from its policy against conferring honorary degrees on sitting politician.
Past recipients of ASU honorary degrees included an aloe-vera magnate, the director of "Victor Victoria," a Chinese official, a Canadian politician and lots of donors and fundraisers.
Four days after addressing ASU, Obama will give the commencement address at Notre Dame, which is conferring an honorary degree despite some local criticism of the choice of speaker.
Obama has received honorary degrees from Knox College in 2005, Northwestern In 2006, UMass Boston in 2006, Xavier in 2006, Howard University in 2007, Southern New Hampshire University in 2007, and Wesleyan University in 2008.
ASU’s student daily, the State Press, touched off a firestorm this week when it reported under the headline, “Obama won’t receive ASU honorary degree":
"University spokeswoman Sharon Keeler said Tuesday that the University awards honorary degrees to recognize individuals for their work and accomplishments spanning their lifetime. ‘Because President Obama’s body of work is yet to come, it’s inappropriate to recognize him at this time,' Keeler said."
Crow said the resulting brouhaha "kind of wounded my heart." He said ASU hasn’t “had a commencement speaker in over 30 years, so this is a big deal for us.”
“Typically, the university’s policy relative to honorary degrees has been that people who are sitting politicians, we don’t given an honorary degree,” he explained. “It’s kind of a local thing. We’ve gotten a huge reaction from a lot of folks as if some decision was made not to give him one. Far from it.”
Crow said he found the criticism ironic because he found “his agenda and objectives,” as outlined in his address to a joint session of Congress, were so aligned with “the institution that we’re business.”
“We’re a true public university that has remained committed to our public mission,” Crow said. “We have egalitarian admission standards and we provide the finest faculty and programs we can put together, and don’t constantly try to cut out the bottom of the class.”
In inviting Obama, the university had said it was "America's largest effort at institutional transformation in public education."
Crow had said in a statement when the school was selected by the White House: "The progressive leadership he has already displayed and the values he espouses are a great example for our students and for the extended community that surrounds us.”
ASU's president said officials now are considering conferring an honorary degree, regardless of local custom. “We intend to recognize him in multiple ways,” Crow said. “As to this issue relative to the honorary degree, we don’t know where it came from.”
Here are some of the previous honorary degree recipients, none of whom was elected president at age 47, in a landslide of electoral and popular votes:
--Blake Edwards, “whose more than 50 films include such memorable titles as ‘Days of Wine and Roses,’ ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s,’ ‘The Pink Panther,’ ‘Victor Victoria’ and ’10.’”
--Wu Qidi, “the Chinese Vice Minister Of Education Who Previously Arranged Lucrative Partnership With China’s State-Owned Enterprises.”
--William Polk Carey, a real-estate investment banker and $50 million donor.
-- Rex G. Maughan, a beauty-products billionaire whose company touted aloe vera and bee pollen as miracle age-reducers.
--Jane Dee Hull, Arizona's first elected woman governor.
-- Alice Wiley Snell, ASU fundraiser.
--John R. Christian, ASU fundraiser.
--Lord John Browne of Madingley, a BP executive.
--The Right Honorable Kim Campbell, Canada’s first woman prime minister.
--Peterson Zah, president of the Navajo Nation.
--Rafael Rangel Sostmann, president of Tec of Monterrey, a Mexican university that had signed a business partnership with ASU.
--Jerry Colangelo, a sports executive involved in plans that would have benefited ASU.
--L. Roy Papp, a mutual fund manager and his wife, Marilyn A. Papp, huge ASU donors who helped establish a Chinese art program.
-- Barbara McConnell Barrett, a former Reagan administration official involved in airline deregulation.
-- Craig E. Weatherup, a huge donor who was the benefactor for the Weatherup Center.