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ASU, G-Town also embroiled in controversy over awards

Madeline Buckley | Sunday, May 10, 2009

Controversy about commencement, honorary degrees and awards is not limited to the debate at Notre Dame.

The White House and Arizona State University (ASU) announced March 20 that President Barack Obama will deliver the school’s 2009 Commencement address in Tempe, Ariz., but the university declined to award the president an honorary degree – a traditional gesture for graduation speakers.

A university spokesperson said the school generally awards honorary degrees to people who have held their positions for a long time, according to an Associated Press report.

“[President Obama’s] body of work is yet to come,” said Sharon Keeler, the spokeswoman. “That’s why we’re not recognizing him with a degree at the beginning of his presidency.”

After weathering criticism for withholding the honorary degree, ASU president Michael Crow apologized for the “confusion” surrounding the invitation to Obama, and he said in a statement that the school will name a scholarship program in the president’s honor.

“It has always been our intention to recognize and honor President Obama’s accomplishments during his visit,” he said. “But we had not yet determined the best or most appropriate way to do so. Although the focus and attention of the media and others has been on an honorary degree, we never felt that was the only – or even the best – means of honoring his tremendous service to our country.”

Crow said the scholarship will give students with the “greatest financial need” the opportunity to attend ASU.

“Naming this scholarship program after President Obama that will affect the lives of thousands of students is an honor befitting, not only the president’s exceptional achievements, but also his values as an individual,” he said in the statement. “The President Barack Obama Scholars program will be a legacy that will endure and inspire others for generations to come.”

Crow said in the statement that he hopes the criticism surrounding the controversy will not detract from the excitement of the event.

“The entire ASU community has been electrified with excitement since we learned of his participation in our commencement ceremony,” Crow said. “We hope that the recent discussion of honorary degrees will not detract from the honor and thrill that ASU – and indeed all of Arizona – is experiencing in anticipation of his visit. I am honored, as are our faculty, staff and students, that President Obama will give his first commencement speech as President of the United States at ASU.”

A speech delivered by Obama at Georgetown University April 14 made headlines after the White House asked the university to cover up a monogram with the letters “IHS,” a symbol of the name of Jesus, in the hall where the president spoke on the economy, according to a CNSnews report.

Several religious groups criticized this request, but a university spokesperson told CNSnews the school covered the sign to coordinate the “logistical arrangements” of the event.

“The White House wanted a simple backdrop of flags and pipe and drape for the speech, consistent with what they’ve done for other policy speeches,” the spokesperson said.

Georgetown University was also met with criticism after giving Vice President Joe Biden the Legal Momentum Award April 22.

The award recognizes Biden for his work creating the Violence Against Women Act, which has “improved the lives of countless women and brought domestic violence out of the shadows,” according to a statement released by the university.

Several pro-life and religious groups claim the award bestowed by the Jesuit university violates the a statement released by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), “Catholics in Political Life,” that states “Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions.”

The Georgetown Law Center hosts conferences to provide a “free exchange of ideas,” but the statement said the school does not necessarily endorse the ideas.

“Georgetown is proud of its Catholic and Jesuit identity and its core values of respect for and service to others,” the statement said. “While students and faculty may invite speakers and host events, the views of the speakers are not endorsed by nor do they necessarily reflect the views of Georgetown.”