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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.”

Indeed.

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.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Jim says:

    Well….every year we go through this. It never really changes: distinguished conservative (or administration official) gets chosen to speak at a graduation and student and faculty act like 8 year olds. Yawn.

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  2. Phillip R says:

    We go through this every year. Some sexist, or homophobe, or warmonger is honored by a university and the students respectfully show their distaste for the individual while conservative pundits make themselves look like schoolyard children by lobbing sophomoric insults. Yawn.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 1

  3. Houston says:

    “Controversial figure?” Please. She’s a conservative pundit. She has opinions that most every liberal college professor disagrees with (including the civil rights attorney who introduced her). And this is how most of those professors chose to show their immaturity (except for at least one, thank goodness). And most of their immature students followed them.

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  4. Anon says:

    I think the interesting question here is whether or not such a protest is ever appropriate, and what is the standard by which we should judge the appropriateness. For example, is such a protest appropriate against Ahmadinejad? How about Fred Phelps? Of course, it is highly unlikely that either of them would ever be given an honorary doctorate, but consider it as a hypothetical.

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  5. Anon says:

    Houston,

    The excerpt suggests that most faculty and most students did not take part.

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  6. Steve Plunk says:

    They act like this and then wonder why people don’t respect college professors anymore? I don’t believe I have ever seen a group of “professionals” so reluctant to grow up and behave like adults. I know there are many who do but as a group they continue to disappoint with consistency.

    I thought dissenting from the standard point of view was a courageous thing to do? I thought respect for opposing ideas was a sign of political maturity? How can they ask for the students to show respect in the classroom if they won’t show during a public ceremony?

    It’s scary to think my son will be more of an adult than those who teach him when he goes off to college.

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  7. DA says:

    I think it’s sad to see that conservatives view students and faculty calmy, quietly registering disapproval as somehow being beyond the pale. I would say that the description of the protest makes it sound like it was done quite respectfully, as in “I respectfully disagree.” What about that is even vaguely childish?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  8. James Joyner says:

    I think it’s sad to see that conservatives view students and faculty calmy, quietly registering disapproval as somehow being beyond the pale.

    Not at all. It’s just that there’s a time, place, and manner in which to do these things. A rally before the ceremony would have been appropriate.

    I would say that the description of the protest makes it sound like it was done quite respectfully, as in “I respectfully disagree.” What about that is even vaguely childish?

    What’s remotely respectful about this? They’re creating a spectacle to embarrass an invited, honored guest of the school.

    Adults are put into positions where they have to listen to people with whom they agree all the time. Adults don’t turn their backs and make a big scene every time that happens.

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  9. Bithead says:

    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

    She was on the losing side? I wasn’t aware that war was over yet. As for the battles, did the ERA get passed and nobody told me?

    What’s remotely respectful about this? They’re creating a spectacle to embarrass an invited, honored guest of the school.

    Yes, and therein lies several points.

    1: It’s not that you hate, but what, and whom, that annoys the left.
    2: If this treatment were applied to AlGore, they’d be having public fits and dragging the media into wall to wall mode over it.
    3: Controversial standpoints, supposedly were welcomed by the schools. We now see that controversy is only allowed if it’s in pursuit of leftist policy.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 2

  10. DA says:

    What’s remotely respectful about this? They’re creating a spectacle to embarrass an invited, honored guest of the school.

    I fail to see how the protest was disrespectful in the least. It was silent and calm. No one was kept from listening to her. Indeed, the protesters themselves listened to her, just with their backs turned. I disagree that they were doing anything to try to embarrass Schlafly; I think it’s quite curious if you are equating dissent with embarrassment.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  11. Drewski1 says:

    Imagine what might have happened if a similar “protest” were made during one of the “distinguished” professors’ lectures. If any of the students disagreed with the content of the lecture, or the professor giving the lecture, and decided to turn their backs, do you think the professor and administration would so calmly toss it off as a harmless protest?

    Not on your life – to those in academe, it’s all about who and what is being protested – it’s not the validity of the protest, nor the passion of the protester. In their minds, only some concepts and people are allowed to be protested – others have absolute moral authority, and can demean those to whom they speak with little or no admonition.

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  12. Anon says:

    For all of those criticizing academe, you should at least acknowledge that ultimately, the university did award an honorary degree to her. How many of you would be willing to award a honor to someone on the left you strongly disagree with, such as Al Gore?

    Note that I’m not necessarily defending the protesters here. I just think there is some blindness to the fundamental fact that ultimately, most of the university seemed to go along with it.

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  13. graywolf says:

    Again, the raging immaturity of the “academe” produces another tamper tantrum.

    “If you recognize someone I don’t like/agree with, I’ll hold my breath until I turn blue. I’ll show you.”
    SNAGS – Sensitive New-Age Geeks.

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  14. Steve Plunk says:

    DA, next time you are in conversation with someone and you disagree with them turn your back and stand silent. I will guarantee it will be taken as an insult.

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  15. DA says:

    DA, next time you are in conversation with someone and you disagree with them turn your back and stand silent. I will guarantee it will be taken as an insult.

    Of course, the situation you are describing is not at all the same. The audience and Schlafly were not in conversation. In a conversation, you can make clear your dissent as a part of the conversation.

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  16. Steve Plunk says:

    DA, it is not the same but similar enough to show how disrespectful and rude such an act is. As an invited guest Schlafy was asked to speak with the implication of people listening.

    As much as people want to color this as some sort of disciplined act of dissent it remains nothing less than an immature display of the self-centered left.

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  17. PS: How hilarious is the conservatives’ outrage every time liberals protest? Like a conservative never protested anything.

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