Just reward

April 6, 2006

With the sun shining and Healy lawn covered with basking students, spring is well arrived. Since this is my last turn at Union Jack for the year, it may be enlightening to look at the honorary degree, Georgetown’s way of throwing its hat—or diploma, as the case may be—into the ring of national affairs, and nominate a few dark horse candidates who deserve Georgetown’s honoris causa at this year’s commencement.

The honorary degree, a symbolic doctorate conferred upon some eminence in the sciences, arts or public affairs, is both a tool to sucker interesting figures into attending commencement exercises and a P.R. move that attaches Georgetown’s name to some exciting mover and shaker.

Past recipients of the award include, among others, CNN foreign correspondent Christiane Amanpour, physicist Freeman Dyson, 9/11 Commission Chair Lee Hamilton and His Royal Higness Felipe de Borbon Y Grecia.

It’s easy to mock these University prizes, which seem to be about as rewarding to Georgetown’s reputation as the recipient’s, but they don’t lack as much substance as you might think. Looking for an example of a poorly chosen award, I found almost everyone to have some redeeming factor. Even British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s wife, Cherie, who received her President’s Medal last June, turned out to be a powerhouse feminist lawyer. Who would have thought?

Georgetown’s choices in the award department are mostly well chosen, due, no doubt, to diligent vetting by the Office of Communications. But they’re a little too well chosen-—heavy on foreign royalty and well established names. What if Georgetown were to focus our award on the up-and-comers who personify Georgetown’s values?

The University stresses commitment to interfaith discourse, so what about Jihad Momani, the courageous Jordanian newspaper editor who was jailed by his government after speaking out against Islamic extremism during the Dutch cartoon controversy earlier in the year—the year after we gave Jordanian King Abdullah an honorary degree?

If we’re committed to spreading democracy in the Middle East, what about an honoris causa for Mithal Al Alsui, a little-known liberal Iraqi member of parliament? And if we’re so interested in justice, how about a prize for Polk award winner Marcus Stern, the journalist whose reporting revealed the “Duke” Cunningham congressional bribery scandal?

Of course, The Voice doesn’t have a charter from Congress—we’re working on it-—so we can’t give these prizes out. Hopefully, however, the University will think again before it adds to some distinguished leader’s post-nominal alphabet soup. Let’s find the underdogs instead. (

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