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AUB faculty take aim at Wolfensohn

BEIRUT: Ninety-five faculty members from the American University of Beirut have signed a petition opposing the university’s plans to honor former World Bank president James Wolfensohn at this year’s commencement.

Wolfensohn is set to receive an honorary doctorate at AUB’s commencement later this month, and he is also scheduled to deliver the keynote address at the ceremony.

The petition, titled “Not in our name: AUB faculty, staff, and students object to honoring James Wolfensohn,” says that honoring Wolfensohn “symbolically undermines AUB’s legacy in the struggle for social justice and its historical connection to Beirut, to Palestine and beyond.”

The petition bases its objections to honoring Wolfensohn on his work as president of the World Bank from 1995 to 2005 and his membership on the International Advisory Council of the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI), a think tank that, according to its website, “devises ways to strengthen the moral and structural foundations of Israel democracy.”

The website says that IDI “acts to promote the values and norms appropriate for Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.”

The petition also refers to the partnership of a company founded by Wolfensohn, Wolfensohn & Company, LLC, with the company Better Place. The petition describes Better Place as a company “that among other activities intends to build infrastructure to serve Israeli settlers in the West Bank.”

Better Place builds infrastructure for electric cars, including in Israel and the Occupied West Bank.

Signatories include Raymond Brassier, chair of the philosophy department, John Meloy, director of the Center for Arab and Middle Eastern Studies, and the historians Rosemary Sayigh and Fawwaz Traboulsi.

An email from the petition’s organizers did not list the student signatories “because they are by the hundreds.”

Mohamed Ghotmeh, a student at AUB and one of a group of students, staff and faculty who organized the petition, told The Daily Star that honoring Wolfensohn would devalue the reputation of the university.

“An honorary degree is really valuable from the American University of Beirut. We are one of the most elite [universities], not only in Lebanon but in the whole Arab world. If we … give an honorary degree to a person like Mr. Wolfensohn, we will set an example for other countries and I think we will lose credibility.”

Ghotmeh and another student organizer, who wished to remain anonymous, said that the petition was originally circulated by email to a select group of staff members, who then disseminated it to the entire AUB community on Monday.

It has also been publicized via Facebook, twitter and various websites.

“The American University of Beirut is an American university but it is in Beirut,” said Ghotmeh, who will be graduating this June. “[Lebanon] has a huge conflict with the Israelis … even if we were to disregard the Palestinian cause, they [Israel] were occupying the south. This is a strategic conflict in the region.”

“[Wolfensohn] is going to talk for 10 to 15 minutes at our commencement, and there will be people at the commencement whose brothers and fathers and parents were martyrs killed by Israeli hands,” said Ghotmeh. “How will they feel?”

Ghotmeh and the anonymous student organizer both said they hope the administration had not done sufficient research on Wolfensohn before choosing to honor him. They said that they hoped the administration would reverse its position in light of the information in the petition.

Former Prime Minister Salim Hoss weighed in on the issue Thursday, saying that he supported the campaign and urging AUB to cancel its decision to honor Wolfensohn.

An AUB spokesperson said that the administration had no comment on the matter at this time.

A previous press release announcing this year’s honorary doctorate recipients from AUB described Wolfensohn as “an international investment banker and financial adviser … currently chairman of his own firm, Wolfensohn and Company.” It also mentions Wolfensohn’s work at the World Bank, his previous role as Special Enjoy for Gaza Disengagement, and his work as a patron of the arts.

Wolfensohn stepped down at the end of his one-year term as Quartet Gaza envoy in May 2006.

Also being honored at the commencement are composer Marcel Khalife, journalist Anthony Shadid, scientist-historian Owen Gingerich, former U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson, and cancer researcher Mostafa El-Sayed.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 10, 2011, on page 2.

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