Dear President Bienen:
I am President of the Black Alumni Association and a member of the Board of Directors of the Northwestern Alumni Association. I arrived in Chicago on Friday, May 1, to celebrate the accomplishments of black alumni at the 2nd Annual Hall of Fame, to mark the 40th anniversary of the black student take-over of the Bursar’s Office and to engage in the 3rd annual scholarship event sponsored by NUBAA. I was stunned and surprised by the front-page headline on the Chicago Sun-Times that the University had withdrawn its offer of an honorary degree to Reverend Jeremiah Wright, but would allow Jerry Springer to address the graduates of the law school. In light of the strident nature of the questions I received this past weekend, and in consultation with the Board of NUBAA, I am stating my concerns on these events.
As noted in the press coverage, this is the first time in the University’s history that an offer for an honorary degree has been withdrawn from an honoree. It is embarrassing that a controversy of this nature is being played out in the local and national press, but no one at the University sought to engage black alumni, or to gauge how this controversy would affect us. Chicago has the largest community of black alumni. It is unbelievable that no one considered the impact of this decision on the black alumni community in Chicago. The black community is not a monolith, and every member will never agree. However, as President of NUBAA, I am writing to express outrage at this slight to black alumni, particularly those ministered to by Reverend Wright.
The Sun-Times article quoted Alan Cubbage, a spokesperson for the University, as saying: “Commencement at Northwestern is a time of celebration of the accomplishments of Northwestern’s graduating students and their families. 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 Wright and to ensure that the celebratory character of commencement not be affected, the university has withdrawn its invitation to Wright.” It will be difficult for many black students and alumni to celebrate commencement under these circumstances.
This decision has raised intensive questions by the black alumni community regarding the commitment of the University to see us as included in issues that affect us. Because of strident comments that I heard from alumni, and because I live in California, I searched the Web to get a sense of the articles that were being written in the local press regarding both Reverend Wright and Jerry Springer. I found an article written April 28, 2008, in the Chicago Tribune about the controversy over Jerry Springer being a speaker at the law school commencement, and another article on the same topic in Chicago Business, powered by Crain’s, but I could not find a single article written about any controversy relating to the University giving Jeremiah Wright an honorary degree.
Indeed, there appears to be more controversy about the University pulling the degree than its awarding. In an article in the Chicago Tribune on Friday, May 1, 2008, the University was accused by the religious community of participating in a systemic effort to discredit Reverend Wright. “I believe that there is a systematic effort to discredit Dr. Wright and now a major educational institution is caving into that,” said Rev. Linda Thomas, a professor at the Lutheran School of Theology and a member of Wright’s congregation at Trinity United Church of Christ on Chicago’s South Side. “It is irresponsible.”
Universities are supposed to be bastions of intellectual freedom. The American Library Association describes intellectual freedom as “…the right of every individual to both seek and receive information from all points of view without restriction. It provides for free access to all expressions of ideas through which any and all sides of a question, cause or movement may be explored.” It is distressing for us as alumni of a world-class university to have the University participate in a media spectacle, while adding nothing to the intellectual discourse about the legacy of Reverend Wright.
Black alumni strongly disagree with the University’s making a decision of such vital importance to our community, based presumably upon press coverage. Northwestern seems to have squandered a teachable moment on the topic of freedom of religion and failed to have thoughtfully engaged in leading the much needed discussion that America must begin on race. Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, Texas, when faced with the same question of honoring Reverend Wright, issued the following statement: “Contrary to media claims that Wright preaches racial hatred, church leaders who have observed his ministry describe him as a faithful preacher of the gospel who has ministered in a context radically different from that of many middle class Americans.”
As best I can tell from the press coverage, there is a controversy over Jerry Springer giving the law school commencement, but there is no controversy over giving Reverend Jeremiah Wright an honorary degree. To further educate myself on the requirements of an honorary degree, I went to the University’s Web site to find out the requirements for an honorary degree. The Web site lists several criteria. However, the one most important to this discussion is the last point:
The University should be careful that the awarding of a degree not be politically motivated or appear to be so.
In reviewing the requirements, it appears that nothing in Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s life’s work has changed between when the faculty voted to honor him and now. While the press has had a field day running quotes taken out of context, it seems to us that the University owed Reverend Wright a review of his work to ensure that he was being treated fairly. Because black alumni have taken the time to educate ourselves on the press coverage of Reverend Wright, we are saddened and dismayed that the University took this move without consultation of or explanation to the community.
Many black alumni live and work in the community served by Reverend Wright’s church, and black alumni are members of that church. Many of them are angry that the University would compound what they view as the press persecution of their spiritual leader. The last bullet in the requirement for an honorary degree is very difficult for me in light of the University’s actions. While the University states that it will exercise care in ensuring that awarding a degree is not political, it seems that the University took no care in ensuring that stripping of a nominee for a degree was not politically motivated.
The ability of black students to attend the University en masse was born of struggle. We marked a milestone in that struggle on May 1. Out of the struggle grew the Department of African American Studies, one of only seven programs (as of March 2006) in the country that offers a Ph.D. program on African-American history and culture. Through the University, the McCormick Tribune Foundation is working on a documentary looking at the Kerner Commission report from 40 years ago on inequality in America. In light of the University’s institutional participation in topics of intellectual discourse on struggle in this country, it is unfathomable that the University pulled this honorary degree to a leader on behalf of the dispossessed, and an active participant in struggle, because of “controversy,” especially since it appears that there is no controversy. With the declining numbers of black undergraduates, and the failure of the University to engage the black alumni community on this very important topic, many question whether the University regards our community as relevant.
Reverend Jeremiah Wright has dedicated his life’s work to serving those that society has left unequal and excluded. We, the black alumni community, call for an immediate review of the decision to withdraw Reverend Wright’s honorary degree. We ask for more information on how the University decided that giving Reverend Wright an honorary degree is controversial. At the same time we ask, why hasn’t the University decided upon another commencement speaker for the law school in light of the actual controversy regarding Jerry Springer?
I look forward to your response to the issues that I have raised in this letter.
Ce Cole Dillon
President, Northwestern University Black Alumni Association