Lehigh Valley

Lehigh University faculty to vote on rescinding president's honorary degree

Racist, sexist, disrespectful speech cited

BETHLEHEM, Pa. - Nearly 50 of Lehigh University's 471 faculty members Monday afternoon overwhelmingly approved having the university's entire teaching body vote within the next ten days on whether to rescind the honorary degree Lehigh bestowed on President Donald Trump in 1988.

As a final action item on its agenda presented by Professor Douglas Mahony, chair of the faculty steering committee, members shouted loudly in unison following two motions introduced to proceed with an electronic vote to be conducted by the school's institutional research department.

The results would be made available in less than two weeks and would be presented to the university's board of trustees. 

Board took no action last year

Mahony said last August the trustees were presented with a petition signed by nearly 35,000 persons calling for the board to strip the president of his degree.

They decided to take no action saying, "Lehigh University encourages respectful dialogue, discussion, and learning about important societal issues. The board remains committed to the university's values and to its principles of equitable community, which recognizes each person's right to think and speak as dictated by personal belief and to respectfully disagree with another's point of view."

The preamble to the faculty's motion says statements made by Trump do not meet Lehigh's standards for respectful discourse where different opinions exist.

It continues, "If a member of  Lehigh's on-campus community made one of these statements they would be subject to disciplinary action, taken in their entirety, and would be at risk of dismissal." 

The preamble continues, several years ago when the trustees revoked Bill Cosby's honorary degree they cited behavior "inconsistent with the character and high standards expected of honorees, and added, if Lehigh's principles are only adhered to when convenient and standards are enforced inconsistently, then they are meaningless, disingenuous and worse. 

The document emphasizes that by staying silent faculty members are bystanders that "normalize hate speech, condone discrimination and bullying, and enable persons of power to corrode the foundations of civil society and abdicate our commitment to uphold and sustain our core values."

And most importantly, "What message do we send to students, staff, and faculty about racist, sexist, and disrespectful speech?" the faculty asked. 

Values, not cynicism 

They asked that the revocation be based not on the president's right to speak, but according to the document what Trump actually has said many times in the course of his remarks, which is "inconsistent with the character and high standards expected of honorees and therefore is unacceptable behavior from such a member of the Lehigh community.  

As a result, the faculty said it calls on the university's board of trustees to rescind the honorary degree, and if it fails to do so, provide the faculty with a satisfactory explanation as to why a list of 27 of Trump's allegedly racist, sexist, and disrespectful remarks would be considered acceptable and in line with university practices and values.  

Environmental and earth sciences professor Peter Zeitler remarked, "This is not about cynicism; this is a statement about values and diversity."

Associate professor of sociology Ziad Munson noted, "It is difficult to explain to students why a black man was stripped of his degree and why a white man is allowed to continue." 

Religion studies professor Ben Wright pointed out that of the five honorary degrees Trump has received, only two, from Liberty University and Lehigh, still stand. He said he feels uncomfortable with that and also stressed the importance of Lehigh's teachers not remaining simply bystanders in this matter.

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