I’m wearing my brown and white today in honor of my alma mater, Lehigh University. Lehigh made headlines last week because the faculty voted to rescind an honorary degree given to Donald J. Trump.
As you all know, I’m usually pretty opinionated. But I was torn on this issue in large part because my Lehigh blood runs deep. I graduated in 1984, and my brother was president of the class of ’80. We came by our love of the school genetically: our father got his master’s at Lehigh.
Donald Trump’s connections to my alma mater are family related, too. Our now-president’s late brother Fred was Lehigh class of 1960. In 1988, four years after I left the campus, Trump delivered the commencement address and received an honorary doctor of humane letters.
That was a long time ago before Donald’s comments about “grabbing women by p****” became public and before he called some nations shitholes. Last week, 80 percent of Lehigh faculty voted yes on a motion to rescind the degree on the grounds that the president exhibited behavior “antithetical to Lehigh values.”
The motion put forth a “non-exhaustive” list of what were described as “racist, sexist, and disrespectful remarks” made by President Trump. It turns out college faculty and students can agree on something, as the school’s student senate passed a resolution supporting the faculty vote, 38-2-1
However, on March 2nd, the Lehigh Board decided not to rescind President Trump’s degree. I didn’t know where I stood—with the board or the faculty and students.
While I don’t like the idea of allowing an honorary degree to become a political football, I can’t defend any of the president’s statements contained in the motion. And the motion makes a good point in saying that “if a member of Lehigh’s on-campus community made one of these statements, he/she would be subject to disciplinary action; taken in their entirety, he/she would be at risk of dismissal.”
At the same time, Donald Trump was elected after saying many of the things contained in the motion. And frankly, he is the same guy they awarded the degree to in the first place.
Back in 1988, when Trump was announced as commencement speaker, then Lehigh president Peter Likins said, “Lehigh is extremely proud to have Donald Trump as its commencement speaker. He is a man of great imagination, daring and vision, and I’m sure his message will be received eagerly by students.”
A handful of students actually protested the selection because of Trump’s already dicey history. A Sirius XM radio listener of mine named Geoff was one, and he sent me this picture. Ironically, Trump’s commencement address theme was that students needed to “get mad.”
After warning graduates of the dangers of drugs, alcohol and aids, Trump launched into a passionate attack on foreign competitors. “So many countries are whipping America,” he said, “we have to fight back.” He complained about U.S. allies that don’t share their financial burden for defense and wondered aloud, “What kind of clowns do we have representing us?”
Sound familiar? He was being rewarded for this kind of brash outspokenness then as he is now.
While the faculty motion expressly said, “We are not commenting on his political views or policies,” I worry that stripping him of the degree would nevertheless have been perceived as such. I can just picture the folks on Fox castigating Lehigh as a liberal institution—which it is not. While back in the early 80s, you could have fit all the campus supporters of the Reagan-Bush club I founded in a phone booth, I’ve never felt it was like some northeastern universities whose students seem to have one-track minds.
In their statement, Lehigh’s board reaffirmed the rationale they gave back in October when they originally declared they wouldn’t rescind President Trump’s degree. Their declaration in October and a few days ago both included this statement:
“The board of trustees remains committed to the university’s values and to its ‘principles of our equitable community,’ which recognize each person’s right to think and speak as dictated by personal belief and to respectfully disagree with or counter another’s point of view.”
That rationale sounds right to me.