Brandeis University’s double standard on honorary degrees

April 9

A few years back, Brandeis University awarded an honorary degree to Tony Kushner. This was controversial because Brandeis is a Jewish-sponsored (but non-sectarian) university that has historically had very close ties to Israel. Indeed, the university’s namesake, Justice Brandeis, led the American Zionist movement for some time. Kushner, meanwhile, was not only known for his hostility to Israel in general, but for making inflammatory statements such as “The biggest supporters of Israel are the most repulsive members of the Jewish community,” a direct insult to Brandeis’s many faculty, students, alumni, and donors who are strong supporters of Israel.

Despite objections, Brandeis went ahead with the award, with the university president explaining:

Brandeis bestows honorary degrees as a means of acknowledging the outstanding accomplishments or contributions of individual men and women in any of a number of fields of human endeavor. Just as Brandeis does not inquire into the political opinions and beliefs of faculty or staff before appointing them, or students before offering admission, so too the University does not select honorary degree recipients on the basis of their political beliefs or opinions.

Fast forward to today’s news. Brandeis University has decided to withdraw its planned award of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsa Ali, a well-known defender of women’s rights in the Islamic world. A university statement explains: “She is a compelling public figure and advocate for women’s rights, and we respect and appreciate her work to protect and defend the rights of women and girls throughout the world. That said, we cannot overlook certain of her past statements that are inconsistent with Brandeis University’s core values.” (Ali, who was raised Muslim but now identifies with no religion, has often criticized Islam, sometimes quite harshly.)

If it’s true that the university wasn’t aware of Ali’s well-known public statements about Islam before it decided to grant her an honorary degree, that’s rather embarrassing. Worse yet, juxtaposing the Kushner and Ali situations, it turns out that the university DOES award honorary degrees based on the potential honoree’s opinions. And apparently, while expressing hostility to Islam conflicts with Brandeis’s “core values,” engaging in vile insults against American Jews who support Israel does not.

For what it’s worth, if I were King I’d abolish honorary degrees entirely, and choose commencement speakers who won’t use the opportunity to advance an ideological agenda. But meanwhile, not to put too fine a point on it, it seems we’ve learned that Brandeis’s “core values” include the idea that offensive speech from politically correct sources like Kushner is not disqualifying for an honorary degree, but offensive speech that is not politically correct like Ali’s is disqualifying.

David Bernstein is the George Mason University Foundation Professor at the George Mason University School of Law in Arlington, VA.
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Jonathan H. Adler | April 9