Nick Ungson, '18G, speaks at the end of the Founder's Day ceremony Friday, Oct. 19, 2017 in Packer Memorial Church. Ungson said the Graduate Student Senate’s executive board has yet to consider if it will take any further steps in response to the board of trustees’ decision about President Trump’s honorary degree. (Sam Henry/B&W Staff)

Students and faculty react to board of trustees’ inaction on Trump honorary degree

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Lehigh’s board of trustees announced it would take “no action” in response to the petition to rescind President Donald Trump’s 1988 honorary degree, despite it receiving more than 30,000 signatures.

The petition, created in August by alumna Kelly McCoy, ’17, generated debate among students, faculty and alumni. A survey conducted by The Brown and White found that 75 percent of respondents thought the board should rescind Trump’s honorary degree.

The discussion regarding Trump’s honorary degree began in spring 2016.

Nick Ungson, ’18G, the president of Graduate Student Senate, administered surveys throughout the spring of 2016 and 2017 to better understand how graduate students felt about the topic.

Ungson said results from the 2017 survey indicated the proportion of people in favor of keeping Trump’s honorary degree decreased since 2016, and the proportion of people in favor of rescinding it increased in that time.

Ungson said members of Graduate Student Senate’s executive board have yet to consider if they will take any further steps in regard to the board’s decision, but if a group of graduate students expresses interest in continuing to pursue rescinding the degree, they will be supportive.

President of College Republicans, Matthew O’Brien, ’20, said he supports the board members’ decision because he believes they have more important things to work on, such as improving Lehigh’s infrastructure, expanding campus diversity and increasing the number of applicants to Lehigh.

O’Brien said it would not be fair to penalize Trump for going against the Principles of our Equitable Community because the principles were created in 2011, years after he received his honorary degree.

“We would be judging someone on their past, based on standards we made in the future,” he said.

O’Brien said students who are upset with the outcome and want to make an impact on Lehigh’s community should find more substantial ways to improve the school than rescinding a meaningless honorary degree.

However, Emma Stevenson, ’18, a president of College Democrats, is disappointed with the decision and feels the board does not care about the 30,000 people who signed the petition.

“I’m trying to see (the trustees’) point of view, and I know that there must’ve been a lot of factors,” Stevenson said. “But I just don’t think they are living up to our Principles of our Equitable Community.”

Stevenson said she has also been unsatisfied with the response from students after the decision and expected more of a reaction since the petition had so much support.

“I feel like it really does show Lehigh’s political apathy,” Stevenson said. “We only care about something when it has mass support.”

Stevenson hopes students will protest and show their disapproval of the board’s decision.

Rishi Gummakonda, ’20, is the vice president of College Democrats and was interviewed by The Brown and White earlier this semester regarding his thoughts about Trump’s honorary degree.

After the trustees’ announced their decision, Gummakonda said he felt like the board does not care about the students’ opinions and thinks its decision makes its members look bad.

“In a way, they’re saying Trump’s actions have no effect on our opinion of him, and everything he does is acceptable,” he said.

Gummakonda said he wants the trustees to look at Trump’s policies, actions, stances on education, budget cuts and his response to racial tensions, and ask themselves if they align with Lehigh’s values.

Colin Grace, ’20, was also interviewed by The Brown and White earlier this semester. Grace is happy with the trustees’ decision because he doesn’t think they should have rescinded the degree because Trump hasn’t been convicted of any crimes.

He said he considers Trump nothing more than a controversial political figure.

“Political views are no grounds to remove a degree,” Grace said.

Faculty members have expressed their opinions on the decision, too.

In this Oct. 8, 2014, file photo, James Peterson, the director of Africana Studies and associate professor of English, sits in his office on in Drown Hall. Though he signed the petition, Peterson said he is most interested in ensuring people feel like they have an equitable opportunity at Lehigh. (Cate Peterson/B&W Staff)

James Peterson, a professor of English and the director of Africana studies, signed the petition earlier this semester. He said the board has been supportive of his work, the Africana Studies program and initiatives to make Lehigh a more inclusive environment.

“I know for a fact that there is leadership in this board of trustees that believes deeply in the Principles of Our Equitable Community and the ideas around which we think this university needs to exist in the 21st century,” Peterson said, “which is why I’m a little disappointed.”

Peterson said he is more interested in making sure Lehigh’s community lives up the principles it has laid out for itself, like diversity and inclusion, rather than the reactionary practices people engage in.

“I’m not as interested in taking away an honorary degree as I am in making sure that people feel like they have an equitable opportunity here at Lehigh,” he said.

Peterson said people need to ask tough questions about the metrics or standards by which the board would revoke an honorary degree and acknowledge that our principles are retroactive.

Tom Collins, a professor of psychology, was upset by the decision as well as the manner in which it was announced.

Collins thought it would have been better to know the tallies of the vote, presuming there was one. 

“Whatever the outcome, rescind or not, knowing how the votes tallied would have provided solace to those left disappointed,” he said.

When The Brown and White reached out to board secretary Frank Roth for further comment, the request was redirected to director of media relations Lori Friedman, who wrote, “The board’s statement is its full commentary on the issue.”

Collins said the board’s minimal response causes people to speculate about the reasons behind the decision, one of which may be that the board thought it was acting in Lehigh’s best financial interests.

“Knowing something about reasons behind the decision would have enabled a balanced critique,” Collins said.

Collins advises people who might be disappointed in the decision to attend initiatives on campus to create a dialogue between one another and to try to better understand where differing opinions are coming from.

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1 Comment

  1. Amy Charles '89 on

    So…considering that Lehigh wants to keep its name on that pile of sick, and considering the kinds of comments I see here from alumni regularly, and Lehigh’s obscene COA, and everlasting gender and racial inequities, and everlasting fraternity ghastliness, and the grotesque definition of “success” it seems to maintain, and the fact that not much there seems to change —

    how do I revoke my own degree? Turn it back in?

    I’m not actually joking. I’m embarrassed to say where I went to school, and dismayed by most of what it taught me. It’s where I was raped and first watched people turn into alcoholics. My more sensible roommate jumped ship after freshman year, went somewhere better. (No, not “more highly ranked”, though it was probably that, too — better.) I’d like to hand my own degree back, drop any association with Lehigh.

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