Prospect of Honoring Bush Stirs Debate at Howard PDF Print E-mail
Written by Kerry-Ann Hamilton - Black College Wire   
Thursday, 10 October 2002

Howard University students are debating whether President Bush is a suitable candidate for commencement speaker or recipient of an honorary degree after the university's Board of Trustees approved him as a possiblity.

"If the Board could make such a decision knowing that the majority of students would oppose, I am concerned about other decisions they are making that are out of line with the desires of students and the Howard tradition," said Stefanie Brown, former Howard University Student Association president (2001-2002). Brown said she was unequivocally opposed to the prospect of Bush receiving an honorary degree or speaking.

"The president's policy is not favorable to us as African Americans," LaJuana Acklin, a junior psychology major, said. "Howard University cannot ignore the administration's disenfranchisement of thousands of blacks in Florida" during the 2000 election.

Students like Kenny Wesley, a junior Spanish and chemistry double major, are adamant that the student body should have some say as to who is selected to speak at commencement.

"I would participate in a petition or some form of protest to remove the President's name from the list of candidates," Wesley said. "He has been invited before and did not show up, why does the university think he would come this time?"

Bush was invited to speak at Howard University during the 2000 presidential campaign. Bush declined the invitation, but Democratic nominee Al Gore accepted and spoke in Cramton Auditorium.

Brown, who is Undergraduate Student Assembly representative for the School of Business, mentioned Bush's failure to appear at two national NAACP conventions after being invited, as well as Bush's policies, in explaining her opposition.

"We just protested with Jesse Jackson about the Bush administration's closed-door policy," Brown said. "The university wants to give a man who has been ignoring African American issues and leaders an honorary degree from the best HBCU in the country. I strongly oppose."

The secretary of the Board of Trustees, Artis Hampshire-Cowan, said that members of the university community nominate people they think are suitable candidates for honorary degrees and the board makes a decision.

"Persons nominate any one they see fit; some persons nominate their pastor," Hampshire-Cowan said. "As a board, we look at the outstanding contributions the candidate has made to society, and certainly the president of the United States fits that criteria."

Hampshire-Cowan said that no final decision had been made about who will definitely receive an honorary degree or speak at commencement.

The undergraduate student trustee, Jaha Howard, a senior chemistry major, said she understood both the university's stance and that of the student body.

"It is only a nomination and as president of the United States, inviting George W. Bush is not far-fetched," Howard said. "If students are strongly against the president coming, this should be taken into consideration by the university administration."

Trustee Howard said he would conduct a survey to get a sense of the issues affecting students. The possibility of Bush receiving an honorary degree is among the survey questions.

Ja'Ron Smith, a junior finance major, is a member of the newly formed Howard University chapter of the College Republicans and disagrees with the anti-Bush sentiment.

"A lot of students are upset with Bush possibly receiving a honorary degree and they don't know why," Smith said. "I am Republican, but not a fan of Bush; however, Republican or Democrat, he is our president."

Current Howard University Student Association President Cornell Williamson said he views Bush's nomination as a political strategy.

"The overall nominations were good, but I have reservations about President Bush's nomination," Williamson said. "I don't think it is a good moral decision on the part of the university, but I see it as a strategic political decision to ensure that we maintain strong ties with the U.S. government, who partially funds our university."

Hampshire-Cowan insists that the university is bipartisan and says the Bush family has been a major supporter of Howard.

"The University has a history with the Bush family, with Bush Senior and now the current president," Hampshire-Cowan said. "As a university we don't have permanent friends, but permanent interests."

In 1989, the student body protested Howard's ties to the Bush family. Lee Atwater, the campaign manager for George H.W. Bush's presidential campaign, was appointed to the Howard University Board of Trustees.

On Atwater's watch, the Republicans used ads featuring Willie Horton, a black man convicted of raping a white woman, in campaign ads.

The Howard student body protested in an Administration Building takeover that drew national support from Jesse Jackson, among others.

The event prompted Atwater's resignation from the board.

Hampshire-Cowan said she was alarmed by the student response to President Bush's approved nomination.

"George Bush is our president and leader of the free world," Hampshire-Cowan said. "He will also bring prestige to our university."

Howard students are not the only ones who have protested Bush speaking at a commencement. Last year, Notre Dame University students picketed with placards, citing Bush's 152 executions as governor, his renouncement of the Kyoto agreement on the environment, what they called his disregard for workers' rights and what they said was his failure to support domestic manufacturing industries.

Students at Ohio State University protested Bush's delivery of the commencement on several grounds.

Kerry-Ann Hamilton is a student at Howard University and campus editor of The Hilltop. Lauren Anderson contributed to this report.

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