Over the years, Washington University, like many universities across the nation, has chosen to grant honorary degrees to noted individuals from around the world, as well as those alumni and members of the University community who have become a part of the broad public discourse on vital issues of the times — whether or not the majority of those within its community agree with the views expressed by those individuals.
Clearly, in any community with a large number of people and a diversity of viewpoints, it would be impossible to make a selection with which everyone would agree. That is the very nature of a university.
Alumna Phyllis Schlafly’s articulation of her perspectives has been a significant part of American life during the last half of the 20th century and now the 21st century, serving as a lightning rod for vigorous debate on difficult issues where differences of opinion are profound and passionate. Not only should a university serve as a place where such discussions take place, but it may also choose to recognize those who provide leadership and articulation — both pro and con — on vital issues. When the University awards an honorary degree, it does so without endorsing viewpoints or taking sides on such issues.
Washington University has honored many individuals in the past from all aspects of the political spectrum, including civil rights leaders Jesse Jackson and Julian Bond; political leaders as diverse as Madeleine Albright, John Major, Patricia Schroeder, John C. Danforth, Paul Simon and Richard Gephardt; educational leaders such as Ruth Simmons and Henry Louis Gates; and members of the media including Tom Friedman, George Will, Tim Russert and this year’s commencement speaker, Chris Matthews.
The Board of Trustees awards honorary degrees recommended by a committee of the Board. The Honorary Degree Committee is one of the committees of the Board of Trustees. The Honorary Degree Committee is chaired by a member of the Board of Trustees and includes 33 Washington University students, faculty, staff and other members of the Board of Trustees.
The Committee reviews candidates nominated for an honorary degree. Any member of the Washington University community can nominate candidates. The Committee reviews candidates in at least two meetings, and each Committee member has the opportunity to discuss the candidates and their credentials. The Committee must vote unanimously to recommend all candidates for consideration by the full Board of Trustees. The full Board of Trustees must also vote unanimously to award the honorary degrees recommended by the Committee. Careful consideration is given to the selection of a balanced slate of distinguished individuals to include local, national and international figures.
(For the university’s May 13 statement on the matter, please go to:
(For the Chancellor’s letter to the university community on the matter, please go to: