TEMPE, ARIZONA - Arizona State University became the unlikely focus of a political firestorm last week when news broke that ASU would not be conferring the customary honorary degree on President Barack Obama when he gives the commencement speech in May. The university's official reason cites a policy of not giving honorary degrees to sitting politicians -- but one sitting politician did receive an honorary degree from ASU and the university has now admitted that the policy was only "verbal" and never documented.
According to President Michael Crow:
Since my appointment, we have not awarded honorary degrees to sitting politicians, a practice based on the very practical realities of operating a public university in our political environment.
Virgil Renzulli, Vice President of Public Affairs, explains that the policy was actually changed in 2003, the year after ASU President Michael Crow arrived, and after Robert Stump, a sitting member of Congress, was awarded an honorary degree.
Renzulli says Stump was selected for an honorary degree before Crow was appointed, but the conferment of the honorary degree was delayed due to illness.
A source who works closely with the Honorary Degree Committee, though, says no mention of sitting politicians has been included in the Committee guidelines, and he believes no policy was ever implemented regarding sitting politicians.
State Press reporter Adam Sneed interviewed members of the committee last week and no mention was made of a policy regarding sitting politicians. In fact, when asked about an honorary degree for Obama, committee member Paul Patterson said it had not had time to evaluate Obama for an honorary degree. No mention had been made of any policy related to sitting politicians. In fact, no mention was made of any policy related to sitting politicians until the story had been in the national news for nearly two full days.
ASU has also been unable to produce any documentation of any policy related to sitting politicians and the conferment of honorary degrees. Renzulli said, in an official statement to Huffington Post today:
The policy was changed in 2003 and it was communicated to the members of the honorary degree committee at that time. If this has not been discussed in the presence of newer members of the committee it may well be because no nomination for a sitting politician has been submitted to the committee since then.
Regarding the lack of documentation, Committee Co-Chair Christine Wilkinson says (emphasis added),
The university's policy on honorary degrees is a combination of written and verbal instructions. The criteria pertaining to sitting politicians and donors is part of the verbal instructions.
ASU media relations spokesperson Sharon Keeler reiterated ASU's apology "for the confusion around the honorary degree process" and promised "to take steps to make sure something like this does not happen again." Presumably, those measures will include documenting the committee's guidelines and policies.
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