Schlafly Honor Protested
Washington University in St. Louis’ awarding of an honorary doctorate to Phyllis Schlafly was met by protest from several students, faculty members, and invited guests.
Margaret Bush Wilson, a retired civil rights attorney, volunteered to introduce Schlafly as faculty and students were calling on the university to rescind the degree. Wilson said after the ceremony that while she does not agree with many of Schlafly’s views, she is a strong advocate of free speech. “Vigorous, free-flowing debate is the cornerstone of our American life,” Wilson said at today’s ceremony. One of this country’s great virtues is that people don’t have to agree with one another, she added.
“It is Phyllis Schlafly’s persona — not her politics or views — which is being recognized here today,” she said. Wilson noted that Schlafly is a national leader of the conservative movement, author of more than 20 books, a fearless debater, and twice a graduate of Washington U.
Some applauded while Schlafly was hooded. But about a third of the graduating students draped in the school’s green and black robes turned their backs to her, along with some faculty members sitting on the stage behind her. Many family members in the audience also took part. Three faculty members made the extra point of walking off the stage and then turning their backs from the audience.
One of the protesters was Darla Dale, an assistant dean and a faculty marshal at the ceremony. Dale said she decided to participate after making sure the protest was intended to remain respectful. Dale said she strongly disagrees with Schlafly’s views on the role of women in society as well as with her work to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment. And students encouraged her to join them. “It felt good,” Dale said of turning her back.
Marshall Thompson, a Ph.D. graduate in political science, said he thought the white armbands should have sufficed for protesters to show their dissent. But he thought the turning of backs was “a bit overboard.” “It’s not the right way to voice your displeasure,” he said.
Despite the protest, Schlafly said afterwards that she was touched by the university’s decision to grant her the degree. “It’s the highest honor a university can give to anyone,” she said. As for her detractors, she said, “I’m not sure they’re mature enough to graduate.”
Schlafly was an honored guest of the university and should have been treated as such. She was chosen to receive an honorary doctorate by a committee — one that included student representatives — set up to make those decisions.
Graduation ceremonies should be occasions of quiet dignity, not childish stunts. They are also, however, supposed to be a time to honor the accomplishments of the graduates and to serve as a rite of passage into the next phase of their life. Choosing that moment to present an award to a controversial figure is inappropriate, too.
Schlafly is undeniably accomplished but it was quite predictable that this presentation would generate widespread opposition. She was on the losing side of a long, divisive cultural battle and her ideas now seem strangely out of touch with today’s society and, certainly, a modern university. She’s a distinguished alumna of the school, to be sure, but its leaders chose a poor time to honor her.