Brandeis, my alma mater, made news this week when it first awarded, and then rescinded, an honorary degree for the Somali-born author and political activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Here are a few scattered thoughts on this:
1. Honorary degrees are a sham. They’re completely meaningless. They’re a way for universities to aggrandize themselves and give attention and unearned accolades to a bunch of celebrities that would better be granted to the accomplishment of the graduates themselves. It always particularly upset me that an honorary degree is called “Brandeis University’s highest honor.” Why isn’t Brandeis’ highest honor an actual degree from Brandeis, accomplished through four years of study, rather than a fake certificate, presented by a committee?
2. The school should have done their homework, and known this would cause a problem which, once again, is taking the focus away from the people who are actually graduating. They put themselves in a position that they’re going to piss off a whole lot of people whether they give the degree, or don’t give it. Just a bungling all around.
3. Then again, I don’t see how giving or not giving Hirsi Ali the degree is a horrible outrage because, once again, honorary degrees mean nothing.
4. Commencement speaker/honorary degree controversies were a yearly tradition when I was at Brandeis. Usually the problem was that the speaker the school chose wasn’t famous enough. “We pay $30,000 a year!,” I heard students say many times. “Why can’t we have a speaker as cool as the one my friends at Harvard got?” And yes, I know Brandeis now costs a whole lot more than $30,000; that talking point hasn’t been adjusted for inflation.
5. I read Hirsi Ali’s book years ago, and my opinion of her is mixed. She went through a horrible ordeal in her youth- and her advocacy for women, and against female genital mutilation is greatly admirable.
6. But at the same time, she’s said a whole lot of awful things, including that the West is (or should be) at war with Islam. Take some of the things she’s said, change “Muslim” to “Jew,” and see how that sounds. It probably wouldn’t lead to very many honorary degrees, especially not from Brandeis. She’s also spent a great deal of time telling some of worst elements in American political life everything they want to hear, including this nonsense about “creeping sharia.” Loathsome, warmongering vermin like Bill Kristol, Pamela Geller and John Bolton are huge, huge fans.
7. In her statement after the decision, Hirsi Ali said that Brandeis was “planning for me to speak to its students at Commencement” and that Brandeis and her critics “simply wanted me to be silenced.” Wrong and wrong. She was never scheduled to be the commencement speaker, and pulling an honorary degree from someone- especially when coupled with an invitation to speak at a later date- is in no way “silencing” them. Once again- criticism and rebuking are not censorship, and they’re not silencing either.
8. The actual commencement speaker is Geoffrey Canada, the school reform activist and charter school founder. What, no lefty backlash against a guy who’s done his share of battle against teacher’s unions?
9. Brandeis has had a lot of incidents lately in which two of its biggest traditions- left-wing politics and Zionism- have clashed, and this is another. I’ve got a feeling there’s going to be a lot more of that in the future, and it saddens me.
10. Why can’t Brandeis ever make the news for anything positive? Just in the last few years we’ve had the post-Madoff scandal near-selloff of the art collection, the al-Quds controversy, Jehuda Reinharz’s donkey debacle, and now this.