Editorial: Obama's Pastor Is Wrong For Northwestern Degree

This story was written by Editorial Board,

"God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human. God damn America for as long as she acts like she is God and she is supreme."

These words, which have been replayed on news programs nonstop during the past month, were part of a 2003 sermon by Sen. Barack Obama's longtime pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. - who, if University President Henry Bienen had not changed his mind, would be receiving an honorary doctorate at commencement in June.

Since Bienen's decision became public Wednesday night, students and professors have questioned the university's choice to renege on its offer. The real concern should be why Wright was to be given a degree in the first place.

In November, Bienen invited Wright to commencement ceremonies and offered Wright, who preaches at Trinity United Church of Christ on Chicago's South Side, an honorary doctorate in Sacred Theology. In March, he wrote the pastor a letter withdrawing both the offer and the invitation. But since November, nothing about Wright has changed except his national profile. Obama's presidential bid brought Wright's beliefs to the forefront of national politics, but his teachings have been public for years.

NU should have known better.

A thorough examination of potential degree recipients would have guided the committee away from a religious figure who preached, "The government lied about inventing the HIV virus as a means of genocide against people of color. The government lied."

As a pastor and community leader, Wright has worked toward many positive goals, offering drug counseling and legal aid to his congregation and community. This work deserves praise, but an honorary degree is a special type of endorsement. NU's guidelines stipulate that "a recipient should be one who will lend distinction to the University."

Seniors are recognized at commencement for completing their courses, regardless of their opinions. But an honorary degree recipient is chosen for everything he or she represents, including academic achievement.

Usually candidates inspire little controversy. Madeleine Albright, then Secretary of State, was a contentious choice when NU offered her an honorary degree in 1999. Obama and fellow presidential contender Sen. John McCain both have honorary doctorates.

Albright, Obama and McCain have their detractors, but no one can deny their records of achievement and service - and none of them have accused the U.S. government of inventing AIDS to kill its own people.

When the university awards honorary degrees, inflammatory comments and hateful beliefs should be red flags. Preaching hatred and intolerance has no place in an academic environment.

Honorary degree recipients are selected by a special faculty committee and voted on by the faculty Senate before being submitted to the Board of Trustees. The general faculty committee's chairman does not remember discussing Wright as a candidate. Such a choice should have inspired a vigorous debate.

Bienen's official reason for withdrawing the degree was that Wright's presence in June would detract from the "celebratory character of Northwestern's commencement." Given the media circus Wright has inspired, Bienen is right.

More forethought could have spared the university its double embarrassment: the fact that NU offered Wright a degree at all and the fact that the university withdrew it to avoid even more negative attention.

A degree from NU is an honor as well as an endorsement. In giving, as in receiving, a doctorate, research and critical thought are mandatory.