BEIRUT: Faculty and students at the American University of Beirut are circulating a letter opposing the honorary doctorate being awarded to Donna Shalala, the president of the University of Miami and a former U.S. secretary of health, over her support for engagement with Israel.
The letter follows a campaign last year which successfully led to the revocation of an honorary doctorate being awarded to former World Bank chief Paul Wolfensohn, and its writers highlight what they say is a failure to increase transparency of the nomination process, despite promises from the university’s administration.
“Donna Shalala ... has established clear academic ties with the Israeli apartheid regime and has been one of the leading voices opposing the boycott of Israel,” the letter, entitled ‘Can AUB find only those complicit with Zionism to honor?’ says.
“AUB’s choice of honoree forces us to wonder ... whether there is a systematic and structural attempt to turn the AUB, through its administration and Board of Trustees, into a normalizing entity, violating the boycott principles that Palestinians under Israeli occupation have called for,” it adds.
The letter follows the announcement Sunday that Shalala would be receiving the doctorate. A list of signatories has not yet been released and it is unclear how many have signed or endorsed it. Mayssun Sukarieh, a visiting assistant professor in the Center for Arab and Middle Eastern Studies and organizer of the campaign, told The Daily Star that there had not been enough time to fully collect signatures.
Student signatories include members of the university’s Palestinian Cultural Club, and the CAMES Film Society, while Tarif Khalidi, who holds the Shaykh Zayid Chair in Islamic and Arabic Studies at the university, has also endorsed the letter.
Faculty members, according to Sukarieh, were afraid to put their names to the letter after a negative reaction to last year’s campaign.
The objections to Shalala’s honorary doctorate center around her acceptance of honorary degrees from Israeli universities – Technion University and Haifa University, and a doctorate from Ben Gurion University – and partnership agreements between the University of Miami and Israel’s Bar Ilan and Ben Gurion Universities, as well as her statements opposing the boycott of Israeli academics.
Born in the U.S. to Lebanese parents, Shalala spent eight years as the secretary of health and human services under the presidency of Bill Clinton.
Last June Wolfensohn pulled out of the AUB commencement following a petition from students and faculty members over his links to an Israeli think tank and businesses. Following that incident, according to the letter this week, the administration “assured AUB community members that awarding future honorary doctorates would be a more transparent process.”
Sukarieh told The Daily Star the letter would not be sent directly to the university’s administration, as they felt the university have ignored previous calls.
“We really are taking it as a strategic move not to send the letter to the administration,” she said.
The letter accuses the AUB administration of being “disrespectful of the voices of its own students, faculty, and staff, and unconcerned to open a dialogue with its own constituency.” AUB’s press office said it was unable to respond to the letter without it being sent directly to the university’s administration by the signatories.
Shalala is currently traveling to Lebanon, and is expected to arrive in the coming days for the ceremony on June 22 where she is scheduled to give the commencement speech.