I am Zachary Parker, the coordinator of For Members Only, the Black Student Alliance. Although I can not speak for all Black students, I can certainly say that the sentiment among the Black student body is one of contempt, disdain and disappointment for the university’s decision to retract Reverend Doctor Jeremiah Wright’s honorary degree. As a result of your decision, there has been an outcry from undergraduates, which compels me to write this letter. As you read this letter it is my hope that you consider the University’s actions and realize how these decisions negatively impact a large percentage of Northwestern’s student body (not only Black students) and consider the requests that are to follow.
Our mission statement states: “Northwestern is committed to excellent teaching, innovative research, and the personal and intellectual growth of its students in a diverse academic community.” Although Northwestern has and will reward many for their contributions and studies by way of a Northwestern degree and has in many ways provided excellent and innovative learning and research opportunities, the University has and continues to fall short on its commitment to assure the cultivated growth of one both personally and intellectually. Northwestern had a great opportunity to utilize the “controversy” surrounding Reverend Wright to impact change and learning on campus by demonstrating the importance and value of diversity in thought, practice and ideology. Instead, Northwestern decided to opt out of such an opportunity. While I will not speculate on your intentions, I will state from a student perspective that many feel it was to keep either a select few or certain majority happy or appeased.
Alan Cubbage, a spokesperson for the University, has been quoted as saying: “In light of the controversy around Dr. Wright and to ensure that the celebratory character of commencement not be affected, the university has withdrawn its invitation to Wright.” The notion that Reverend Wright’s presence at commencement would have in some way tainted the celebratory activities of the University is both absurd and offensive. Such a claim is absurd for the fact that commencement, yet a time for celebration for students and their families, is a time for the University to celebrate the accomplishments and deeds of deserving intellectuals like Reverend Wright. Such a claim proves to be offensive as well because it implies that those who may have taken offense to Reverend Wright are thereby more important and necessary of appealing to than those who may admire the same man. Northwestern University, an institution that at its inception did not admit Blacks, an institution that currently does not equally admit students of color as their white counterparts, an institution where the journalism dean has come under criticism because of his improper practices in writing, an institution that honors and “celebrates” the controversial figure Frances Willard (and other university presidents), an institution whose own faculty denies the happenings of the Holocaust, an institution that has been the site of many protests for its many problematic decisions and practices, proves to be ridiculously hypocritical in their assertion that the University is steering away from controversy.
It is unfair for the University to place sole blame on Reverend Jeremiah Wright for the controversy surrounding him during this political season, because one has to take into account the role and manipulation of “the media” and those concerned with undermining Reverend Wright’s contributions to his church, his country and his community. Additionally, it is unfair for the University to mount blame on Reverend Wright for its decision to take away the honorary degree that he has proven himself worthy of because it is the university’s job to adequately research candidates for these honors prior to their decision. Is Reverend Wright, a man who has served this country through military and ministry, no longer deserving of an honorary degree simply because some see him as controversial? Has Reverend Wright’s credentials changed since Northwestern originally decided to grant him an honor? If the answers to these questions are no, which I’m sure they are, then I believe Northwestern should reevaluate its decision in retracting Reverend Wright’s honorary degree. It is time for Northwestern to be a leader in thought instead of a follower in thought.
Northwestern is the perfect place for controversy for it is, or at least should be, the place where differentiating thought, ideology and practice meet. Therefore, the University’s concern with commencement becoming “controversial” with the presence of Reverend Wright echoes ways in which Northwestern still follows, instead of leads, in the academic tradition. Furthermore, the University should focus on celebrating academics and one’s deeds to their chosen field of study instead one’s political affiliation. Whether or not you or I agree with Reverend Wright’s critiques of this country’s practices does not negate the fact that his contributions to the field of Sacred Theology are noteworthy and commendable. Therefore, I, on behalf of For Members Only, request that a verbal and or written description of the University’s selection criteria be made public, and that a review board be assembled to reflect and consider the institution’s actions as you hopefully work towards reconsidering your decision.
I leave you with this quote made by Paulo Freire: “Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”
2008-2009 Coordinator, For Members Only