By Fleming Smith
The University Senate’s honorary degrees committee has drafted a procedure for the revocation of honorary degrees in the wake of protests over Charlie Rose’s 2016 degree from Sewanee. The procedure awaits approval from the Senate and the Board of Regents, but many students hope that the Board of Regents will soon make a decision in light of this new development.
The honorary degrees committee consists of five members in addition to the Regents: Professors Bran Potter, Pamela Macfie, and Mishoe Brennecke (C’84), as well as Dean of the College Terry Papillon and Dean of the School of Theology Neil Alexander. The group drafted the procedure for revoking honorary degrees in the course of 10 days after the Senate’s meeting on February 26.
“I’m hopeful that by the end of break, we’ll have answers to a lot of our questions. We worked hard to get these procedures out…we’ve accelerated all of these processes because this is a time-sensitive matter,” Potter told The Purple.
Although many students hope a decision will be made to revoke before spring break begins, Potter was not as optimistic, commenting, “I would not say that you’ll have absolute clarity before spring break.”
However, he added, “I’m very optimistic that we’ll have a definitive answer in the timeliest manner possible.” Potter explained that the college faculty and Senate have made their opinions clear; after the University Senate voted unanimously to recommend revocation of the degree, the college faculty voted to endorse their recommendation that same week, not unanimously but “overwhelmingly in agreement,” according to professors.
Regarding the procedures currently under review, Potter said, “Ultimately, the procedures can be used short-term and long-term. The most significant thing I see right now is that we have a procedure.” Before this semester, no such procedure existed, as Sewanee has never revoked an honorary degree.
Potter clarified that “any set of procedures would develop with the expectation that this would be a very unusual event…with the expectation that the procedure would not necessarily be driven by a single case.”
Neither the Senate nor the Board of Regents has yet released their opinion on the procedure.
At a recent meeting hosted by the Leadership Coalition for Speak Up Sewanee, more than 80 students, seminarians, faculty members, community members, and administrators gathered to review the actions already taken in protest against the Board of Regents’ decision to maintain Rose’s honorary degree on February 15 and to plan the next steps.
The Coalition emphasized that in under a month, more than 11 open letters have been published, many in The Purple, all in favor of revocation. Brandon Iracks-Edelin (C’18), a Coalition member and president of the Student Government Association (SGA), shared SGA’s data from a recent survey: out of 763 students, making up 43 percent of the student body, 640 students opposed the Regents’ decision, while 72 were in favor and 51 students had no opinion.
The Leadership Coalition has begun work on a list of demands for the administration. While the list does call for the revocation of Rose’s degree, it includes many other demands, such as a general education requirement focusing on classes that study social inequalities and diversity; increasing student representation on the Board of Trustees; a student commons; increased transparency regarding crime statistics on campus, especially hate crimes; and the addition of more diverse voices in Title IX processes.
At the meeting, the Leadership Coalition appeared hopeful that the community would soon hear news from the Board of Regents regarding the honorary degree. “It is my understanding that [the Board of Regents] will be meeting soon and will be discussing this, and will come up with a decision, but we don’t know what that decision is going to be,” said Claire Brickson (C’18), a member of the Coalition and a student trustee who originally presented revocation to the Board.
The Coalition said that they will be meeting with the Chair of the Board, Joseph DeLozier (C’77), this afternoon, March 12.
Although The Purple reached out to several members of the Board, none would comment, and some members stated that the Board “speaks with one voice” and has agreed not to talk publicly on this matter.
After a letter from Vice-Chancellor John McCardell to the student body on February 27, many students believed that the degree had already been revoked. The Coalition stressed that no new decision has yet been made public.
“Until we all receive an e-mail, and it’s not just conversations like this or between higher-ups, but until all students receive an e-mail that says the degree has in fact been revoked, we are still protesting, and we are still boycotting the gown,” said Coalition member Eliana Perozo (C’18).
Some confusion arose at the meeting regarding which group would have a final decision on whether a degree could be revoked. Perozo commented to the audience that “we are hoping that over time, the Board of Regents are not the only people that are allowed to make these decisions.”
Professor Paul Holloway then stood up from the audience and addressed attendees to offer his perspective as a member of the University Senate. “To say that the final decision lies with the Regents is to misrepresent it,” he explained, adding that this was not a misrepresentation by the students present, but perhaps had been explained to them incorrectly.
Holloway emphasized that the Senate still possesses authority in these situations and encouraged attendees to read Ordinances 17 and 19, which address the roles of the Senate and the issue of honorary degrees.
Sewanee resident Lynne Vogel (C’75), one of the first women to register at Sewanee, told The Purple she came to the Coalition’s meeting because “I saw a committed group of young people refusing to back down from injustice, well-organized and committed to positive, organic cultural change.”
She added, “And as a member of the Sewanee community, I wanted to see if there was a possibility of bridging town and gown. The call for transparency is knock on this door. Thank you for all you are doing to create a better, truer Sewanee.”