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Schlafly draws silent protest at Washington U.

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: The controversy over Phyllis Schlafly's honorary degree culminated in silent protest at Washington University's commencement Friday.

Hundreds in the crowd - but a minority of those present on the quadrangle - stood and turned their backs on Schlafly, a conservative activist and a Washington University alum. The action happened as university trustee and civil rights lawyer Margaret Bush Wilson read the citation honoring Schlafly. Many of those protesting wore white strips of cloth on their sleeves., and many wore buttons in support of the Equal Rights Amendment, passage of which Schlafly fought against.

Schlafly, like the other five award recipients, did not speak. University chancellor Mark S. Wrighton, in closing remarks, affirmed the university's commitment to gender equality and fair treatment for all. 

In announcing the award to Schlafly, the university's website described her as "a well-known advocate for the role of a full-time homemaker." She was a leader in the fight against the Equal Rights Amendment, and her criticisms of feminists continue to stir controversy. Schlafly earned her bachelor's degree from Washington U. in 1944 and her law degree in 1978. She also holds a masters degree from Harvard University.

The website also noted that Sclafly is a conservative leader and author or editor of 20 books. They include "A Choice Not An Echo," which was written in 1964, sold 3 million copies and is among the most influential conservative books of the last 50 years.

Ternberg, who was greeted warmly by those protesting Schlafly, is described by the university's website as someone who "blazed a trail for women physicians in her nearly four decades as a researcher and pediatric surgeon. Going into the field at a time when women were discouraged from entering, she was the first female surgical resident at Barnes Hospital, the first female surgeon on Washington University's School of Medicine faculty and the first woman elected head of its faculty council."

Four others received honorary degrees, including the commencement speaker, political commentator Chris Matthews. He has been criticized by supporters of presidential candidate Hillary Clinton for making sexist remarks.

Other honorary degree recipients were composer and producer Quincy Jones, business executive Lee Seng Tee, who was unable to attend the commencement ceremonies,  and German scholar Egon Schwarz. Jones and Schwartz also received exuberant ovations from the audience.


Washington University Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton apologized for the "anguish" caused by the school's decision to award an honorary degree to conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly, but said the school would not rescind the decision.

Wrighton said: "In bestowing this degree, the University is not endorsing Mrs. Schlafly's views or opinions; rather, it is recognizing an alumna of the University whose life and work have had a broad impact on American life and have sparked widespread debate and controversies that in many cases have helped people better formulate and articulate their own views about the values they hold."

His letter to the faculty, students and staff follows.

Dear Members of the Washington University Community,

I write to address the controversy surrounding the decision to award Phyllis Schlafly an honorary degree at Commencement this Friday, May 16, 2008. I am sorry that this controversy may detract from Commencement. However, the Trustees, the University administration and I fully support the rights of our students and others within this community to express their concerns on this issue.

Our long-standing process for awarding the honorary degree was followed:


Mrs. Schlafly was nominated by a member of the community and was reviewed by the Board's Honorary Degree Committee. The Committee included faculty, students, trustees and administrators. After two meetings, Mrs. Schlafly and other nominees were recommended unanimously for consideration at the full Board meeting. The full Board voted to award the honorary degree at the May 2007 meeting.

Following the public announcement of the honorary degrees, many in the University community have called for the University to rescind that offer, stating that Mrs. Schlafly is associated with some views, opinions and statements that are inconsistent with the tolerant and inclusive values of the Washington University community. Personally, I do not endorse her views or opinions, and in many instances, I strongly disagree with them.

However, after further consultation with members of the University's Board of Trustees, the University has concluded that it will fulfill its commitment to award the degree to Mrs. Schlafly. I apologize for the anguish this decision has caused to many members of our community.

In bestowing this degree, the University is not endorsing Mrs. Schlafly's views or opinions; rather, it is recognizing an alumna of the University whose life and work have had a broad impact on American life and have sparked widespread debate and controversies that in many cases have helped people better formulate and articulate their own views about the values they hold.

At Commencement, Trustee Emerita Margaret Bush Wilson has volunteered to read the citation to award the degree to Mrs. Schlafly. As the first woman of color to serve as the national chair of the NAACP, the second woman of color admitted to practice law in Missouri, and as a prominent St. Louis civil rights attorney for more than 40 years, she provides a strong voice for the importance of tolerance and discourse as hallmarks of the Washington University community.

In the midst of this controversy, I want to affirm my personal and the University's institutional commitment to strengthening diversity and inclusiveness and to improving gender balance. Additionally, I have made a commitment that the University will review the process for awarding honorary degrees and will propose appropriate changes.

Washington University is home to students and faculty from all walks of life, from most systems of religious belief and political thought, and from all corners of the world. Yet we do not require these widely diverse individuals to agree with one another. We are stronger because disagreement allows us the opportunity to speak as individuals and as advocates for sometimes widely divergent agendas. Collegial dialogue and discourse inform us as to our feelings and help guide an institution that nurtures debate and tolerance. A university is strengthened by exchanges that may be strongly worded, and that may have been born from the passions and rhetoric of disagreement.

Washington University -- or any other university -- is neither perfect nor are all its processes for making decisions. We can always do better. In the aftermath of Commencement, I am deeply committed to whatever work needs to be done to rebuild damaged relationships with members of our community -- faculty, students, alumni, parents, trustees and staff. I thank you for all that you do to make this a community so open, tolerant and inclusive, and I ask for your assistance as we work together to build the very best environment for all who live, learn, discover and create here.


Mark S. Wrighton


More information

Phyllis Schlafly responds to critics in a letter to the editor to the Post-Dispatch. (The letter is the second one in the link.)

Get an overview of the situation from the campus newspaper, Student Life.

Scott Jaschik, writing in insidehighered.com, reviews the questions raised about this honorary degree .

Katha Pollitt, writing in The Nation, says the honorary degree shows the continuing backlash against feminism.

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