Honorary degree violated Jesuit mission, some Fordham University faculty members say

New York — For most Catholics, Lent is a time for the repentance from sins, and Holy Week in particular is a period of reflection on the suffering of Jesus.

At Fordham University in New York, this Lenten season has been a time for faculty members to reflect on the suffering of torture victims and to call university administrators to offer contrition for a decision they made a few years ago.

In 2012, Fordham University's board of trustees selected John O. Brennan to offer the commencement address and to receive an honorary degree from the university.

The decision quickly became a cause of concern among a group of faculty members and students. At the time, Brennan was assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, and from 1980 to 2005, he served in various positions in the CIA.

Two graduating seniors launched a petition charging that by choosing Brennan, "Fordham University is implicitly endorsing the 'War on Terror,' the use of rendition, the CIA's heinous drone campaign, and the subversion of the rule of law in America, including the assassination of its own citizens."

Though the petition polarized faculty and students on campus, Fordham's administration moved forward with bestowing the honorary degree on Brennan in May 2012. In January 2013, President Barack Obama appointed Brennan as the director of the CIA.

Brennan, who received a bachelor's degree in political science from Fordham in 1977, was furthered feted by the university in September 2014, when Fordham's president, Jesuit Fr. Joseph McShane, gave him the Brien McMahon Award for Distinguished Public Service. By then, the controversy surrounding Brennan had mostly settled.

But just three months later, in December 2014, 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.

The report, and Brennan's subsequent defense of some of the CIA's tactics, reawakened concerns about the honors Fordham had conferred on Brennan. Professor Orlando Rodriguez, chair of Fordham's sociology department, reached out to some of the faculty to explore a meaningful response to university administrators.

Rodriguez is no stranger to the horrors of terrorism or to the struggle for peace. He and his wife, Phyllis, lost their son in the attacks on the World Trade Center. Together, they wrote an open letter, "Not In Our Son's Name," calling on President George W. Bush not to resort to a military retaliation against Afghanistan. (Their story is told in the new documentary "In Our Son's Name.")

Rodriguez and six other faculty members formed Fordham Faculty Against Torture (FFAT) and, in early February, created an online petition calling the university "to exercise its moral leadership and reaffirm its guiding principles by" taking three actions: revoking the honorary degree awarded to Brennan; "promoting reflection within the Fordham community on how our university can better live up to the values espoused in its mission statement"; and "initiating a public dialogue on how, in the wake of the human rights violations committed by our government, we can advance the cause of restorative justice."

Within a week, the petition garnered 200 signatures, the first 100 of which were from faculty.

Jeanne Flavin, a professor of sociology at Fordham and one of the seven organizing faculty members of FFAT, said she sees the petition as an opportunity for the university to examine its shared responsibility to its mission.

"The honorary degree is one of the highest honors the university can bestow," Flavin said, "and yet, in 2012, that degree was given over faculty and student protests."

According to the university's mission statement, as a Jesuit university, "Fordham is committed to research and education that assist in the alleviation of poverty, the promotion of justice, the protection of human rights and respect for the environment."

"We are calling to revoke a degree that never should have been awarded, but we also want this to be a period of reflection and dialogue," Flavin said. "As a community, we should be asking ourselves: Who are we? What does it mean to say that we are champions of human rights and social justice?"

Before the petition went online, the seven faculty members met with McShane in late January. According to a letter posted on Fordham Against Torture's Tumblr, McShane asked the faculty to refrain from moving forward with the petition and offered to invite Brennan back to campus for further conversation. The faculty members respectfully declined.

"We realized that if we invited Brennan to campus in advance of any kind protest, it would be another celebration of him," said David Myers, a professor of history at Fordham and one of the seven organizing members of FFAT. "It didn't reflect the reality of the situation to have him come without the controversy already being there. And the only way for the controversy to be there was for the petition to go forward."

The faculty members began to create events around campus that would promote discussion of the destructive effects of torture and the struggle for human rights. The themes of the Lenten season offered fertile symbolic ground.

Their first event was an Ash Wednesday service. Sister of St. Joseph Elizabeth Johnson, a professor of theology at Fordham, offered a Gospel reflection on Jesus as a victim of torture based her previously written essay "You Did It to Me."

"As the church meditates on the passion of Jesus during Lent, the torture of prisoners by U.S.-approved methods ('coercive interrogation') should not be far from our minds. It is still being done in our name, to enhance national security. Apart from the debate over whether torture is 'effective' or not, Christ's words, amplified by his own graphic suffering, mandate an end to this reprehensible brutality: 'You did it to me,' " Johnson said, invoking Matthew 25:39-40.

The liturgy galvanized enough student interest in the controversy that the organizing faculty members decided to change their group's name to Fordham Against Torture (FAT) to signify the inclusion of students and alumni in the movement.

Louie Dean Valencia-García, a fifth-year doctoral student in history, said he hopes his involvement will leave a legacy of student action in social justice issues.

"If we give an honorary degree to someone who is complicit in torture, then the question is, what is it that Fordham honors? What does that say about our mission statement and, more importantly, about our values?" Valencia-García said. "I want to be associated with Fordham. It's a great place with a wonderful community. I think it will be a better community if we are thinking more broadly about those values as they are stated in the mission statement."

For Rachel Dougherty, a senior at Fordham College's Rose Hill campus, FAT is inspiring not only because of the justice it seeks, but because of the way it has united students and professors.

"In my four years of student organizing at Fordham, this is the first time I've seen a real commitment to students and faculty organizing together," Dougherty said. "I am excited to see faculty leading the charge because it shows a true investment in Fordham University. It's incredible for us to evaluate Fordham's fulfillment -- or lack thereof -- of its own mission and work together to hold our university accountable, because this truly affirms that the university is a space for all of us, together."

Last week, members of FAT organized a teach-in on torture, human rights, and restorative justice in which members of the Fordham faculty offered unique perspectives on torture based on their own areas of expertise. Barry Rosenfeld, a professor of psychology whose work has been dedicated to treating victims of torture, offered a seminar on its psychological and social impact.

The teach-in was held March 24, a date that has significance for both global human rights and the Catholic church. March 24 is the United Nations' International Day for the Right to the Truth Concerning Gross Human Rights Violations and for the Dignity of Victims; the U.N. decided on March 24 because it is the anniversary of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero.

The significance of the day was not lost of Professor Héctor Lindo-Fuentes. Born in El Salvador, Lindo-Fuentes, who is a professor of history and Latin American studies, spoke about the legacy of Romero's denunciation of human rights violations, his defense of the principles promoting human dignity, and his opposition to all forms of violence.

The teach-in's final presentation was offered by Jeannine Hill Fletcher, a professor of theology, who reflected on the ways in which Catholic identity and sacramentality relate to torture.

"Our piety sometimes allows us to forget that the incarnation of the divine resides in the body of an incarcerated victim of torture," Hill Fletcher said, "that the focal point of our worshipping community is a crucifix, on which hangs a dead or dying victim of torture.

"For me, as a theologian," she continued, "revoking [Brennan's] degree would be a statement about our Catholic identity, as one that affirms the sacramental presence in all human beings and which stands up against the humiliation and torture, seeing our responsibility in the sins of our nation and seeking ways that the violated order might be repaired."

Since the teach-in, the number of signatures on the petition has grown to over 420, including 140 faculty members. Other signers include current students and alumni. FAT has not set a date for when they will present McShane and Fordham's board of trustees with the petition.

Though the Fordham University administration has not formally responded to FAT's creation of the petition or the teach-in, on Sunday, Bob Howe, Fordham's senior director of communications, provided the following statement to NCR:

"The Fordham University Board of Trustees stands behind its decision to award John Brennan an honorary degree. The University, and the Board, condemns torture and extrajudicial imprisonment in the strongest possible terms. That said, as a public servant, Mr. Brennan answers to elected officials, including the president of the United States, who are the originators of such policies and who are legally responsible for their creation and implementation.

"President Obama has said he has 'full confidence' in Mr. Brennan, and has reminded reporters that it was Mr. Brennan who called for an inspector general's report. To revoke Mr. Brennan's degree merely because it is within the University's power to do so, as opposed to honors accorded to the elected officials who created and upheld the policies, is both unfair and ineffectual."

Myers said convincing the university to revoke the degree was a long shot. Instead, he sets his hopes on the educational potential of a moment like this.

"We want to make people aware that awarding these degrees is not just something for the week it happens," he said. "Down the road, the degree recipient puts it on his or her resume, can claim approval from a place like Fordham."

That said, Myers said he is proud of the air of civility that has run throughout the process so far. "We have tried to handle the situation like academics," he said. "We've had very good relations with the university, and Father McShane, who is a good and decent man, has been gracious in talking with us about this."

As a historian, he also is acutely aware that, embedded in this controversy, is an important lesson on being on the right side of history.

Brennan, Myers said, "has been actively involved in a policy that overall will bring nothing but shame to this country in the long run."

"If we can say that Father McShane, along with the university, puts into place a dialogue emphasizing rights and responsibilities as Fordham University," Myers added, "and if he seeks to find some way to redress the balance of awarding one degree to Brennan by recognizing someone who has opposed this criminality, then we have done something."

[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.]

Editor's note: We can send you an email alert every time Jamie Manson's column, "Grace on the Margins," is posted to NCRonline.org. Go to this page and follow directions: Email alert sign-up.

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