Biden’s Honorary Degree: A Symbol Of Division At Morehouse College?

By Victor Smiroff | Saturday, 18 May 2024 12:00 PM
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Image Credit : Al Drago NBC News

In a recent development, a significant number of Morehouse College staff have expressed their disapproval of awarding President Joe Biden an honorary doctorate.

This comes amidst nationwide university protests over the President's handling of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian militant group, Hamas.

Out of the total votes cast, 38 faculty members voted against bestowing the honorary doctorate upon President Biden, while approximately a dozen abstained from voting. This was in anticipation of his visit to the Atlanta-based private university on Sunday. However, these objections did not deter the plans to honor Biden with a degree, as 50 faculty members voted in favor of the decision.

The decision to invite President Biden was initially made in September, prior to Morehouse College announcing plans last month for Biden to serve as the commencement speaker for the university's graduation ceremony. In addition, he was to receive an honorary degree from the historically Black college in the critical swing state of Georgia, which Biden had won from then-President Donald Trump four years ago.

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The announcement of his visit sparked protests from some students, faculty, and alumni. The Faculty and Staff for Justice in Palestine-Georgia released a statement condemning the president for his response to the war in Gaza. The statement read, "More than 34,000 Palestinians have been killed, mostly women and children. More than 77,000 have been injured. Every hospital and university in Gaza has been destroyed. None of this would have been possible without the support and sponsorship of the Biden Administration. Any college or university that gives its commencement stage to President Biden in this moment is endorsing genocide."

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Edward Ahmed Mitchell, a Morehouse alumni and the national deputy director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, urged the college to withdraw the invitation. He stated, "Although I completely understand why Morehouse would normally want the President of the United States to speak at our commencement, our institution would never welcome any and every president to speak. George W Bush would not have been welcome at the height of the Iraq war or in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and Donald Trump would not have been welcome at any time."

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He further added, "Because the White House still refuses to end our government's military, financial and diplomatic support for Benjamin Netanyahu's genocide in Gaza, President Biden should not speak at Morehouse's commencement."

Typically, the faculty vote to confer the commencement speaker's honorary degree takes place in September. However, this year, due to an "oversight in the process," the faculty did not vote until Thursday, as stated by Morehouse College. The statement clarified, "The decision to call for a faculty vote is due to a mistaken oversight in the process, which traditionally includes a faculty vote that usually takes place in September."

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Morehouse President David Thomas addressed the criticism in an interview with the Associated Press, emphasizing the importance of Biden's speech amidst the emotional turmoil. He said, "In many ways, these are the moments Morehouse was born for. We need someplace in this country that can hold the tensions that threaten to divide us. If Morehouse can't hold those tensions, then no place can."

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Cedric Richmond, a co-chair of the Biden-Harris reelection campaign and a Morehouse alumnus, argued that Biden "deserves" recognition from Morehouse, citing his track record, which included appointing the first Black woman to the Supreme Court and overseeing the lowest level of Black unemployment in history. "In my eyes, he's earned an honorary degree," Richmond stated.

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Biden's criticism has escalated in light of violent clashes between students, faculty, and police at universities nationwide. The protests began at Columbia University in New York last month, where protesters demanded their university divest from companies with ties to Israel and called for a ceasefire. The police stormed in, arresting more than 100 people, including students, for trespassing, with the university also suspending some students for participating in the protests.

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The protests then spread to universities across the country, including New York University, UCLA, Yale, and Harvard, where violent clashes between police and protesters continued.

Biden has commented on student protests at college campuses, stating on a local Atlanta-based radio show that while Americans have the right to "peacefully protest," shouting hate speech or participating in violence is "unacceptable." He added, "I think, a lot of legitimate concerns, and people have a right to protest, to do it peacefully and I respect it."

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The Israel-Hamas war began in October 2023 when Hamas launched an attack on Southern Israel, killing 1,200 people and taking hundreds more hostage in Gaza. Since then, Biden has sought to position himself as a supporter of Israel, arguing the country has the right to defend itself from Hamas while also urging its military to do more to ensure civilians are not killed in the violence.

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However, he has faced significant opposition from within his own party for sending aid to Israel. More than 34,000 people have died in Gaza since the fighting began, according to the Associated Press, citing local health officials, and much of its 2.3 million people have been displaced from their homes.

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He has also faced opposition for delaying calling for a ceasefire in the region, only doing so for the first time last month after Israeli airstrikes killed seven employees of the international food charity World Central Kitchen.

Meanwhile, Biden's response could shape his fate in the upcoming 2024 election. A poll of college students found this month that 37 percent of respondents said they would consider changing their vote based on Biden's response to the Israel-Hamas war.

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