Over the last few days, there's been an odd kerfuffle in the media over Arizona State University apparently choosing not to award President Barack Obama an honorary doctorate when he gives the university's commencement speech later this year. After intense scrutiny by people who clearly have very little to do with their time, ASU has caved, in a way, and announced instead that it's naming a scholarship after him, now called the "President Barack Obama Scholars" program, probably one of the more awkwardly named scholarships available, at least until Dick Cheney gets one.
But by giving in to criticism, ASU has just shown itself to be as tone deaf as the people who criticized the university in the first place.
Obama will be delivering a May 13th speech to ASU graduates at the university's Tempe campus, and over the years, many commencement speakers have received ceremonial degrees there, including "pioneering scientists and college presidents, titans of oil and computer microchips, newspaper publishers and generous donors, a foreign communist educator and a successful movie director." (See a full list here.) And to all of these distinguished figures, an honorary doctorate from the nation's third biggest party school (according to Playboy in 2006) might be a nice little trinket to put on the mantelpiece.
But no sitting president has ever delivered a commencement at ASU, and not all speakers have received honorary degrees. So why should President Obama receive an honorary degree anyway?
Right here on Huffington Post, Dawn Teo says Obama is getting "stiffed," and that complains that Obama's done quite enough already to merit the honor.
Writing two best-sellers? Not outstanding. Developing one of the largest grassroots organizations in the world? Nothing special. Becoming the first African American President of the United States? Good, but nothing to write home about.
But this flippant, and no one at ASU is suggesting such. The university wouldn't be inviting Obama to deliver their commencement speech if they didn't think he was an impressive and important person with a message its graduates would benefit in hearing.
An editorial by the East Valley Tribune, after noting that the University of Notre Dame has chosen to honor Obama with an honorary degree, snarked that, "perhaps Notre Dame has a better understanding of what Obama already has accomplished simply by reaching our nation's pinnacle of political power and public service."
Perhaps. Or maybe Notre Dame just has lower standards and wants the media attention, or Arizona State's administrators have a better understanding of what an honorary degree means. Or maybe the comparing the two universities is completely fallacious to begin with.
Yes, it's a momentous achievement for Obama to be our first black president. Yes, his campaign was a stunning example of how grassroots organizing and the internet can be leveraged to involve more people in politics than ever before.
But Obama already lives every day with one of our country's greatest honors: he's the President of the United States of America. He's got the nation's top job as the world's most powerful person. We the people have entrusted this job to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin D. Roosevelt. That's nice company.
So at this point, no offense to ASU, but Obama doesn't need the honor of any university. Obama is honored every day by kings and queens, prime ministers and presidents. In Obama's recent visit overseas, French President Sarkozy couldn't look more desperate to please him, and we haven't had the French so in love with us since the British burned down the White House in the 1800s.
More importantly though, Sharon Keeler, an ASU spokeswoman, was right when she defended the university's actions initially by telling the AP that, "His body of work is yet to come. That's why we're not recognizing him with a degree at the beginning of his presidency." I'm sure Obama would agree with this assessment - he has barely gotten started. Not yet 100 days into his presidency, he, like the rest of us, hopes and believes that his best and brightest days are in front of him.
When he does, however, complete his work in the White House, after one term or two, then we will honor him, as we honor all our presidents. We will remember him; we will analyze and interpret his policies, his successes and failures - and no one will ever recall whether or not Arizona State gave him an honorary degree on some beautiful spring morning in 2009.