Former transportation secretary Drew Lewis startled a commencement gathering at Haverford College today by dramatically ripping off a ceremonial hood and rejecting an honorary degree because of substantial student and faculty opposition to the award.
Students and about one-third of the faculty had objected to awarding Lewis an honorary doctor of laws degree because of his role during the controversial 1981 strike by the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization.
About 30 students wore white armbands during commencement to symbolize the protest.
Lewis, a Haverford graduate who heads Union Pacific Railroad, appeared at times overcome with emotion as he explained why he felt obliged to turn down the degree. He told the audience that he came from a "Quaker background" and shared the strong belief in "consensus."
In light of substantial opposition to his presence, he said, he felt compelled to turn down the degree. The award had been presented by Deputy Secretary of State John C. Whitehead, a member of Haverford's Board of Managers.
Lewis spoke for about five minutes in defense of his actions when President Reagan fired about 11,400 air traffic controllers and broke PATCO. When Lewis took off the hood, his audience of about 1,000 murmured in surprise but, when he finished speaking, gave him a standing ovation.
He said that he had little choice in 1981 but to do what he did and that he felt deep "concern" for strikers and their families. The protesters "had no facts" and, if they had, would not have protested his award, he said.