US universities can be strange animals. Two recent decisions on awards for people of color were fraught with absurdity and sophistry. The first one occurred at Arizona State University in 2009. President Obama was the commencement speaker. It is customary to grant commencement speakers an honorary degree; after all, the speaker would not have been invited if he or she were not meritorious. However, Mr. Obama was not granted such a degree. Why not? ASU Media Relations Director Sharon Keeler explained the reason for the decision:
[U]nlike other universities, the processes for selecting commencement speakers and honorary degree recipients are independent. . . . [H]onorary degrees are given ‘for an achievement of eminence’ and that Obama was not considered for an honorary degree because his body of achievements, at this time, does not fit within that criteria.
Come again? Obama doesn’t have “an achievement of excellence”? What world do you live in? The Huffington Post condemned the inane decision:
If being a U.S. Senator and President of the United States . . . is not enough to be deemed as having made significant contributions to society, Obama also has a long list of contributions to education. . . He developed comprehensive plans for students to receive education benefits in exchange for public service. (H)e was the first African American president of the Harvard Law Review, taught Constitutional law at an ivy league university, and, among many other accomplishments, served as a community organizer where established an adult education program and a college preparatory program in inner-city Chicago. It is hard to see how these achievements fail to merit honor.
This slight to Obama is further highlighted by the fact that many universities often give honorary degrees to their major donors, many with little distinction besides making or inheriting money.
The second decision took place at the University of Texas last March. George P. Bush, Jeb’s son, was granted the Latino Leadership Award by the U.T. President’s office working in conjunction with the Center of Mexican American Studies and the Department of Mexican American and Latina/o Studies. Dr. Nicole Guidotti-Hernández, associate director of the Center for Mexican American Studies, explained the reasoning for University’s decision:
We went through a series of 15 nominees, and we evaluated them for leadership, public service and areas like that. With him as the first Latino land commissioner, I think in its (179-year) history of the office, we thought it was an appropriate acknowledgement of what it means to be a trailblazer in Latino leadership today.
The decision caused uproar among many Mexican-American faculty and alumni. In a group letter that demanded Dr. Guidotti-Hernández’s removal, signatories expressed “bafflement” at the decision to grant the award:
He may well be an emerging leader in some political circles, but he has no track record whatsoever compared to the innumerable Texas Latinas/os with years of service to UT and the broader Latina/o community.
The controversy over Mr. Bush’s award surfaced again a couple of days ago at the annual meeting of the Latin American Studies Association that took place in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Dr. Guidotti-Hernández, who was in attendance, defended once more the University’s reasoning:
“It was a forward-thinking choice and it made a lot of people angry and we understand that. We were trying to be provocative and we were trying to reach across the aisle.”
Granting a citizenship award to a neophyte politician who had been in office for just three months for being a “trailblazer”? It takes more than a few days to have a significant impact as a pioneer who traces a path for others to follow.
There are several perspectives from which to view these egregious decisions, but I’d like to mention one. Whatever were the actual reasons for reaching them, their apparent common characteristic is that the individuals in question were judged by a set of absurd standards applied to people of color. A very meritorious Obama suffered an undeserved insult, while the neophyte Bush was the beneficiary of an undeserved honor, neglecting many other Latinos much more deserving of that honor. This makes sense inside the surreal world of the White Racial Frame, where the definition of “colored merit” is elastic and can result in injustice. Major universities, which should be devoted to reasoned thinking, were participants in these inanities. How tragic.