AUB President Responds to the Donna Shalala Honorary Degree Controversy

Remember when I told you about some AUB students causing a ruckus at this year’s Masters’ students graduation ceremony because “zionist Shalala” was being given an honorary degree?

Well, as an AUB alumnus, I received an email with the response of AUB president Peter Dorman on the whole issue and I thought it was such an interesting read that I’d share it with you all.

Dear Members of the AUB Community,

I would like to share with you a personal note, in view of several e-mails that have been circulating among the faculty and on the alumni listserv in the wake of the controversy surrounding the recent honorary degree ceremony at Commencement. In particular, I want to address the comments relating to this administration’s purported agenda related to Israel.

The first and paramount observation is that AUB has always respected and complied with the laws of Lebanon, and always will, particularly the laws prohibiting the normalization of any kind of relations with Israel.

Indeed, this position has come at a cost to some of our faculty members in recent years, particularly those who have had to give up significant funding or research partnerships because of the involvement of third-party partners who had ties to Israeli institutions.

Second, this administration at AUB has no normalization or Zionist agenda of any kind. Those who make that claim or imply it are simply wrong on the facts. But raising questions about AUB’s presumed Zionist leanings is a sensational charge that catches the eye, can spread quickly, and understandably raises deep alarm among Lebanese and others who have suffered from Israeli depredations.

The circulating messages entitled “Can AUB Find Only Those Complicit with Zionism to Honor?”–taken straight from the extremist coverage published by al-Akhbar newspaper‹is a rhetorical question that belies our history of honoring distinguished Arabs or friends of the Arab world such as Edward Said, Helen Thomas, and Hanan Ashrawi. In the last three years alone, the University has honored Walid Khalidi, Dourade Al Lahham, Eric Rouleau, Mary Robinson, Marcel Khalife, Owen Gingerich, Mostafa El-Sayed, Anthony Shadid, Wadad Kadi, and Munib Masri. Eight of these honorees were nominated by our own faculty.

Some have criticized the administration for awarding an honorary degree to individuals who do not adhere to the Palestine Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel campaign, an initiative intended to isolate Israel from such contacts. I defend the right of those who take such a position; it is a principled stance, and one that many feel passionate about. Yet institutional decisions cannot be subordinated to an absolute litmus test imposed by the demands of outside groups. Otherwise, to pick just one example, AUB could never have decided to honor Edward Said, who initiated an acclaimed cultural dialogue through his highly visible sponsorship of a Palestinian-Israeli youth orchestra.

I was born in Lebanon in the same year as the nakba; like so many of you, I have never lived in the world without the dreadful specter of Palestinian dispossession and an expanding Israeli settlement agenda, which are deeply immoral and ultimately, in my view, self-destructive.

As for AUB, our campus is a precious and protected space where differences of opinion do‹and must‹exist in a context of mutual respect.

Free speech is fundamentally a core value of AUB and a part of our long tradition of academic freedom. We will continue to honor it, for every voice in our community.

The Provost and I will be meeting this coming week with a delegation of faculty members, who wish to present their petition of disagreement. The Board of Trustees has also asked me to review the process of vetting candidates for honorary degrees. I know the faculty delegation speak for a good number of you reading this message; but I can assure you that we jointly have only the reputation and good name of our beloved institution at heart, alongside a profound commitment to AUB’s proud legacy, our home country, Lebanon, and the region we serve.
Peter Dorman

President

In very brief summary, he’s politely telling those protesting to suck it. And I couldn’t be happier.

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AUB Students Disrupt Honoring “Zionist” Donna Shalala at Masters Students Graduation

Because an AUB graduation wouldn’t be the same without a mini-scandal on the side, this year refused to be any different. Donna Shalala, former US secretary of health, was making a speech accepting the honorary degree which AUB awarded her when some students started to boo her and chant against “zionist Shalala.”

You can read the details here. There’s also a short video that shows some of what happened:

Shalala has a 20 pages CV. Some of what she has accomplished, apart from becoming the first ever Lebanese-American to hold such a high ranking position in an American government, is the following:

  • She is the president of the University of Miami.
  • She was named one of the United States’ best leaders by many publications, one of which is News & World Report.
  • Former president George Bush handpicked Shalala to co-chair with Senator Bob Dole the Commission on Care for Returning Wounded Warriors.
  • President Bush presented Shalala in 2008 with the highest honor an American citizen can get: the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
  • In 2010, she received the Nelson Mandela Award for Health and Human Rights.

But all of this is not enough for us, as Lebanese, to be proud of Shalala apparently. There are other “things” on her CV which some deem shameful enough to cause a ruckus. Why are some calling Shalala a “zionist”?

  • She has three honorary degrees, among the few dozens that she has, from Israeli Universities.
  • She doesn’t ask to boycott Israel. In fact, she opposes the Boycott Israel movements.
  • She signed agreements between the University of Miami and the University of Ben Gurion in Israel.

Never mind that she has declared that “[her] experience with Palestinians in the refugee camp seared me forever as an advocate for the people of Palestine and their statehood.”

Al-Akhbar, in typical super-biased fashion, wrote a “glorious” article titled: Beirut Honors a Friend of Israel, Again. 

An AUB student was heard saying “I don’t want my university to honor someone who is on a normalization quest.”

I have to ask him/her something. You do know you are attending the AMERICAN University of Beirut, right? You do know that most of the funding AUB gets is from the AMERICAN government? You only need to take a stroll around the biology department to see USAID stickers plastered everywhere in case you have doubt.

Do you also know that your university presidents, all of whom are Americans, probably support normalization?  For all matters and purposes, your place is not AUB if you are so deeply offended by this.

I’ve heard some AUB students say: “this makes me ashamed to be an AUB student.” You know what, I’ve got a very simple solution for you. If you believe the entirety of your academic career rests on who your university awards with a degree that person probably has thirty other ones just like it, you can simply transfer.

As students booed her, Shalala replied: “Let us welcome this demonstration of academic freedom.” Perhaps a dose of the idea of freedom of thought is what some students (and newspapers) need, regardless of whether you agree with those thoughts or not. We’re slowly getting to a point in Lebanon where we’ll refuse to welcome an American just because they may or may not support Israel.

Sure, we all support the struggle of Palestinians but what does shouting at a graduation ceremony accomplish? Nothing.

To sum this up, not everyone who supports Israel is a Zionist and before someone decides to consider me one, no I do not support Israel. As a former AUB student, I’m proud to have received the best education my parents could afford me in Lebanon. And as current AUB students, some of whom were shouting at Shalala, you should know that you are attending AUB because it is the best university in Lebanon and because this is the best education you can get in order to build a future for yourself. Stop getting carried away in useless shouting rows. You want to help Palestine? How about you become a successful individual first and then advocate it at other places than a graduation ceremony where many, many students don’t even agree with what you did?

Enta raye7 tet3allam aw raye7 t7arrer felestin?