Fordham University's president rejects call to revoke honorary degree

As I detailed in this April 1 column, a growing movement on the campus of Fordham University seeks to remove an honorary degree awarded to John O. Brennan. The honor was bestowed on Brennan in 2012, when he was assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism. In 2013, he was appointed director of the CIA.

Though there were smaller, initial protests when the honorary degree was first awarded, the objections to Brennan, who received a bachelor's degree from Fordham in 1977, gained momentum in December, when the Senate Intelligence Committee issued a damning report on the CIA's program of detaining and interrogating terrorism suspects in the years since Sept. 11, 2001.

The report detailed some of the grim techniques the CIA used to torture prisoners, including waterboarding, death threats, sleep deprivation and rectal feedings. (These tactics were explored in depth on PBS's "Frontline" documentary "Secrets, Politics, and Torture," which premiered on many public television stations Tuesday.)

In January, a group called Fordham Against Torture (FAT) was created by eight organizing faculty members from six different academic departments. The following month, the group, which includes faculty, current students and alumni, created a petition asking the university to revoke Brennan's honorary degree. They also asked the university to promote "reflection within the Fordham community on how our university can better live up to the values espoused in its mission statement" and to initiate public dialogue about advancing "the cause of restorative justice."

The FAT petition garnered over 725 signatures, among them 113 faculty members, 446 students and 73 alumni. The faculty signatures include theologians Elizabeth Johnson, Terrence and Maureen Tilley, Jeannine Hill Fletcher, Charles Camosy and Michael Lee.

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In April, as the spring semester drew to a close, 40 members of FAT participated in a day of remembrance for all victims of torture. The events included readings of poetry by survivors of torture and a short ceremony led by professor Bradford Hinze, who holds the Karl Rahner Chair in Theology at Fordham.

Some members of FAT wore orange jumpsuits, while others wore orange ribbons and armbands.

"We wear orange to symbolize our solidarity with those who have been tortured by agents of the American intelligence program. We come here to say that the lives and the bodies of these victims matter," Hinze said.

The group then processed to Cuniffe House, which houses the office of Jesuit Fr. Joseph McShane, Fordham's president, and other administrative offices, to formally present the president with the petition and collected signatures. (The event was captured in a short documentary by Fordham undergraduate James Lassen.)

The group timed the delivery of the petition to coincide with the meeting of Fordham's board of trustees, which is responsible for approving the selection of honorary degree recipients.

After receiving the petition and signatures, McShane sent a cordial letter to the eight organizing faculty members of FAT in which he mentioned the possibility of sharing the petition with the board. That possibility was bolstered by a 19-0-1 vote in the Fordham faculty senate, recommending that the board consider the petition.

Within days, FAT learned that McShane did in fact bring the petition to the board during its meeting.

According to Bob Howe, special adviser to the president and senior director of communications at Fordham, McShane told FAT that the board "took up and addressed the question of rescinding Mr. Brennan's degree in a frank and wide-ranging conversation about the direction that Fordham should take in this matter."

In the end, the board "unanimously affirmed the decision to award Mr. Brennan an honorary degree, and is opposed to any effort to rescind it," Howe wrote in an email to NCR.

In a letter addressed to the eight organizing faculty members of FAT, McShane said while he and the board of trustees condemn torture "in the strongest possible terms," Brennan did not set the policies that led to these punishments. That responsibility, he said, lies with the president and other elected officials.

"The President, his predecessor, and Congress are legally responsible for the creation of the policies you -- indeed all of us -- find so shocking," McShane wrote.

"To revoke Mr. Brennan's honorary degree because it is within our power to do so -- as opposed to placing the responsibility on the President and Congress -- is neither wise nor honorable," he continued.

McShane also reminded FAT that the 1989 murder of six Jesuits, their housekeeper, and her 16-year-old daughter was an attack "in which the CIA was found to be to complicit."

"No Jesuit institution -- no Jesuit -- is inclined to overlook the darker side of the Central Intelligence Agency," McShane wrote. "Do not for a minute believe that honoring John Brennan is the same as honoring the institution for which he works, nor its checkered history."

Members of FAT were unmoved by McShane's appeal to the Jesuits' own tragic history with the CIA. In a letter emailed to supporters earlier this month, FAT's eight organizing faculty members wrote that "Brennan's honorary degree will now permanently stain Fordham's honor and that of the Society of Jesus."

In keeping with the tone of civility that has defined this struggle at the university, FAT also acknowledged that "Fr. McShane's letter recognizes that the practices Mr. Brennan has so vigorously defended were in fact deplorable."

Over the weekend, Fordham celebrated its 170th university commencement and bestowed an honorary degree upon a decidedly less controversial figure: Nana Lordina Dramani Mahama, first lady of Ghana. She dedicates her life to making health care more accessible in her home country and advocates ardently for greater educational opportunities for women and girls.

While much of campus life will go dormant for the summer months, FAT has promised that their work will continue. Though their request to revoke Brennan's degree has been denied, they reminded supporters that their petition also called for a program of dialogue and reflection on the realities of torture and restorative justice.

"That call remains, and we still await action for the good of the Fordham community," FAT wrote an email to members. "We therefore will work in the next months to ensure that Fordham University's leaders engage in serious public reflection and dialogue about the responsibilities of citizens and institutions and pay more than mere lip service to the university's mission statement."

[Jamie L. Manson is NCR books editor. She received her Master of Divinity degree from Yale Divinity School, where she studied Catholic theology and sexual ethics. Her email address is jmanson@ncronline.org.]

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