On February 16, 2015, the University awarded an honorary degree to Christian radio host and writer, Eric Metaxas. Although this conferment sparked dissent in 2015, including an article in The Sewanee Purple criticizing his speech at the ceremony, Royal G. Cravens (C’10) wrote a letter calling for Metaxas’s degree to be revoked in light of his defence of former president Donald Trump’s calls to unseat President Joe Biden in September. Although the petition was emailed to the student body on October 13, the letter has circulated among the greater Sewanee community since September.
Cravens wrote the letter a week before submitting it to the Vice-Chancellor on September 20. The petition is the first of the four-step process for revoking an honorary degree. According to Laurie Saxton, the director of public relations, the vice-chancellor must then share the letter with the Joint-Senate Committee on Honorary Degrees, the University Senate, and the Board of Regents, and each body must vote to approve the revocation. The vice-chancellor has sent the letter to the Joint-Senate Committee on Honorary Degrees. Further discussion regarding both the nomination and revocation of honorary degrees remains confidential. Currently, the letter has 370 signatures and remains open.
Eric Metaxas remains controversial as a political and religious figurehead due to his pro-Trump politics and homophobic didactic. The Purple’s opinion article highlighted how Metaxas demonstrated poor taste by utilizing the anti-apartheid movement as an example of “political peer pressure” within a university. A New York Times article utilized Metaxas as an example of a “Christian extremist.”
“I had several conversations, mostly online, with Sewanee community members, friends, alumni like myself, people that I knew through the course of professional and personal conversations. We all took note that Eric Metaxas had been awarded this honorary degree, and we all noted the comments he had made around the January 6 insurrection. So, over the last several months I decided to pursue the policy as specified by the university ordinances” Cravens said.
Ruth Sanchez-Imizcoz (C ’86), professor of Spanish and the president of Sewanee’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors, said, “I didn’t have a clue who he was, but that’s not unusual. You don’t always know the people who are nominated…The speech that he gave in the chapel was not acceptable, so when the petition came I was not surprised.”
Sanchez-Imizcoz also said she received a request from the University’s staff to share the petition with them.
Although Metaxas received the degree in 2015, Cravens viewed the January 6 insurrection as an opportunity to mobilize a coalition.
“I think that it’s interesting that his comments came at a time when more people are watching the events around the January 6 insurrection unfold… It was about linking these two things: anti-LGBTQ rhetoric is and has always been anti-democratic, and then using the Januray 6 support from Metaxas to show heterosexual, cisgender people that this rhetoric isn’t just about suppressing LGBTQ people, but about denying everybody democracy,” Cravens said.
Cravens and those who signed the petition characterize Metaxas’s public image as antithetical to the University’s stated values. The letter addresses specific problematic statements and actions from Metaxas, such as promoting homophobia within the church, attacking protesters outside the White House, and saying he was willing to ‘shed blood’ to prevent Joe Biden from becoming president.
“The idea is not that we’re trying to cancel Eric Metaxas. He’s certainly free to believe and say what he wants,” Cravens said, “Our issue, or my issue, is with the consequences of those words and deeds, not just words. We should make it very clear that we’re not just talking about words in some sort of nebulous benign fashion…It’s very much about pointing out violent actions associated with that rhetoric too. I don’t know how you could defend that violent rhetoric and activity and say that it’s in any way representative of The University of the South.”
Cravens also highlights how the University has professed its reckoning with it’s past support for slavery and segregation, and how the University has announced a committment to inclusivity, pursuit of knowledge, and liberty under the law.
“And of course, I think it’s very obvious with the value of preserving liberty. Whenever you stand up and say you’re willing to violently prevent the seating of a democratically elected president, I think that speaks profoundly of your lack of dedication to the preservation of liberty,” Cravens said.
Cravens, in regard to his anticipation about the outcome of his letter, said, “Ideally, the outcome I would prefer is that the degree will be revoked. I don’t think we’ll ever know this as their deliberations of the committee are private and they are under no obligation to disclose their deliberations. I would hope it would be unanimous, the investigation that they do find that Mr. Metaxas’s actions have indeed violated the principles of the University and warrant the revocation of the honorary degree.”
Cravens graduated from the University over ten years ago and now works as an assistant professor of Politics at California Polytechnic State University. When asked about his attention to Metaxas despite his current distance from the University, he said,“I still have friends at the University, and colleagues now. As an alumnus I’m still very much invested in the institution. I think it is a responsibility of those of us who were there before and understand that the university wasn’t always the most accepting place for queer students, to try and make it more accepting for those who come after us..”
Sanchez-Imizcoz said there are multiple moments in the nomination process for the University committees to reevaluate the person and terminate the conferment of an honorary degree.
“An honorary degree is given to somebody for good work, honorable behavior, and because he or she is a role-model, and we like that person enough to say ‘okay, we’d like to have you as part of our university.’ And he is not a good moral model for you guys,” Sanchez-Imizcoz said.