Breaking The ASU Story

Adam Sneed, writing for The State Press, broke the ASU story that made headlines in early April.

The firestorm following Arizona State University's decision not to award President Barack Obama an honorary degree when he speaks at commencement in May still has criticism pouring into Tempe, Arizona, but much of it is going to the wrong place.

The Honorary Degrees Committee has been ridiculed for overlooking Obama as a recipient ever since The State Press reported on April 8 that the president would not receive a degree from ASU. But the decision was made by university administration before the committee was ever able to consider him.

A university policy, supposedly in place since ASU President Michael Crow took over in 2002, barred the committee from reviewing the president because he is a sitting politician.
As soon as the original story ran, committee members came under fire for a decision they were never able make. Over the next few days, e-mails flooded inboxes with unsubstantiated accusations of the committee's elitism, racism and partisanship.

Dr. Laurie Chassin, who served as the committee chair before taking sabbatical back in August, said it must be clarified everywhere that the committee was never asked to consider Obama because this policy was in place. As her name became associated with the story, Chassin received several angry e-mails - though no threats, to her knowledge - from people who were mad at her for a decision she had no control over.

Committee member Paul Patterson also drew criticism for saying the committee did not have enough time to consider Obama for an honorary degree even if it could. Ultimately, the amount of time didn't matter. Crow had made the policies for consideration clear to the committee beforehand.

But that's where the administration's mistakes come in.

The university's original defense of its decision was that Obama had not completed his "body of work." Nobody ever said he had not achieved enough in his career or that he was less worthy of an honorary degree than past recipients, but officials waited too long to link the sitting politician policy to the incomplete body of work policy.

On top of that, they did not stick with one explanation.

"We've gotten a huge reaction from a lot of folks as if some decision was made not to give him one. Far from it," Crow told Politico one day after confirming the accuracy of The State Press' original story.

Crow himself announced the university's decision in a large meeting with ASU faculty, staff and administrators on April 3 when someone attending the meeting asked him if Obama would receive an honorary degree.

When Crow's answer - "no" - worked its way through the grapevine to The State Press newsroom, it was clearly a valid question to ask directly. I called media relations at ASU on April 6, needing an answer for deadline the next day and with a story to run in print the day after that, April 8.

The university's decision at that time did not seem as important as it was about to become.
ASU spokespeople were straightforward and helpful in getting information for the story and the final product appeared in the paper just like any other. No significant response came the day it ran, but the next day was different.

That morning in class I saw the same story on the Web sites of local newspapers and the Chicago That afternoon, as it hit The Huffington Post, my inbox was overflowing with responses from Tribune readers.

National attention focused in on ASU and people wanted answers.

The administration's back-and-forth explanations that followed suggested the university was ill-prepared to address its decision, and a Saturday afternoon announcement that ASU would name a scholarship program after Obama didn't seem to help.

By that time, the entire ASU community was feeling the impact. On campus, it never became a huge issue, but people wanted the national embarrassment of our school to end. News channels mocked ASU, an MSNBC commentator called it a place "where you get a degree in lawn mowing," and alumni threatened to stop donating.

The criticism continues to fall on ASU, but perhaps the university's truest critic was one of its own. As Terri Shafer, associate vice president of marketing and communications, said in an e-mail, "We blew it."