AUB administration had decided to award honorary doctorates to three individuals, one of whom is Donna Shalala – an American citizen of Lebanese descent who was Secretary of Health and Human Services under the Clinton administration. (Photo: Marwan Tahtah)
June 22, 2012
For the second year in a row, the administration of the American University of Beirut (AUB) has come under fire regarding its decision to bestow an honorary doctorate on a candidate with a record of being outspokenly supportive of Israel.
Last year, the decision to honor former World Bank president James Wolfensohn, known for his political and economic support of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands, faced heavy criticism from students and faculty members of the university. Subsequently, a petition was drafted and garnered much support, resulting in Wolfensohn not attending the honoring ceremony.
This year, the AUB administration had decided to award honorary doctorates to three individuals, one of whom is Donna Shalala – an American citizen of Lebanese descent who was Secretary of Health and Human Services under the Clinton administration and is currently the president of the University of Miami.
As president of the University of Miami, Shalala’s tenure has faced two major scandals. The first involved her handling of a custodial workers’ hunger strike during the first quarter of 2006. Shalala was heavily criticized for living in luxury while custodians of the university received salaries lower than the living wage and were not even granted health insurance.
However, it is her relationship with pro-Israeli academic institutions, such as Bar-Ilan University, which are involved in the research and development of military technology used against Palestinian and Lebanese civilians, as well as her strong support for Israel that has caused great concern for students and faculty members of AUB.
According to an open letter drafted by a coalition of like-minded students, faculty members, and anti-normalization groups (refer to Box below), the decision by the AUB administration is seen as "insulting" and "shows a lack of concern for the fate of Palestinian victims of Israeli oppression, disrespect for universal human rights, and a disregard for the sentiments of the Lebanese community that supports Palestinian rights."
Furthermore, the letter notes that the decision backtracks on assurances made by the administration last year after the Wolfensohn incident to ensure that the process of selecting honorary doctorate recipients is transparent and respects calls to boycott Israeli institutions. Regardless of these assurances, the announcement of the honorary recipients was suddenly made less than a week prior to the honorary ceremony, which will be held this Friday.
Israel’s Jerusalem Post noted in a July 2010 article that Shalala, who first visited the Zionist state as far back as the 1960s, is an adamant opponent of the boycott movement against the state of Israel.
Shalala’s 20-page curriculum vitae states that she received honors from at least two Israeli universities, including the University of Haifa in 1998 and the Technion Institute in 1994. Moreover, she was a member of the Jerusalem Committee within the Jerusalem Foundation from 1982 to 1992, a notorious organization that seeks to entrench and expand Zionist colonization of Jerusalem, and she was a consultant to the American Jewish Committee from 1970 to 1976. The American Jewish Committee is a hawkish pro-Israeli advocacy group that actively stifles any criticism directed towards the Zionist state. Presently, it is working on drumming up support against Iran’s nuclear program.
As a professed opponent of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement that seeks to pressure Israel to recognize Palestinian rights and end its persistent violations of international law, Shalala presided over a research collaboration agreement in May 2011 between the University of Miami and Ben Gurion University that includes joint research, academic cooperation, and student exchange programs.
In July 2010 Shalala took part in a delegation of American university presidents in a week-long trip to Israel in support against calls for an academic and cultural boycott of Israeli institutions. Shalala stayed behind for several more days to accompany a group from the University of Miami’s medical department that met with faculty members of Israel’s Bar-Ilan University as well as Israeli President Shimon Peres, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and other Israeli officials.
Yet despite her support of Israel, Shalala was subjected to a "humiliating" detainment and interrogation at Ben Gurion Airport prior to her departure back to the US due to her Arab background.
Upon returning to the United States Shalala excused the blatantly discriminatory treatment she faced, saying, "While I was inconvenienced, Israel's security and the security of travelers is far more important. I have been going in and out of Israel for many years and expect to visit again."
According to the AUB website, honorary degrees are awarded "based on a record of scholarly excellence in a field of study in the sciences or humanities, artistic creativity, leadership, humanitarian service, or concern for the public good, as well as a demonstrated commitment to the humane and educational values that exemplify the mission of AUB."
Al-Akhbar attempted to contact the AUB administration for comment, but repeated tries went unanswered.
An Open Letter from anti-normalization groups at the AUB
Can AUB find only those Complicit with Zionism to Honor?
In the lead-up to last year’s AUB graduation, over one hundred of the university’s faculty members voiced their principled opposition to the bestowal of an honorary doctorate upon a former World Bank president with demonstrated political and economic connections to the Zionist occupation of Palestine. In light of this petition, and numerous messages from AUB students and alumni, as well as others, James Wolfensohn decided not to attend the AUB commencement and was not awarded an honorary doctorate from AUB. In meetings that followed this event, university administrators assured AUB community members that awarding future honorary doctorates would be a more transparent process. The AUB administration also stressed, in a letter to the faculty, that "as an institution of higher learning with an historic presence in Lebanon and the Middle East, AUB is deeply committed to upholding the essential values of academic Freedom, and will do so within the bounds of Lebanese law, which strictly prohibits collaboration with Israeli institutions."
Directly contradicting this commitment to transparency, AUB administrators have chosen to announce the 2012 honorary doctorate recipients less than a week before the ceremony at which these awards are to be presented. More insulting to the AUB community, as well as to the society in which the university is situated, is that Donna Shalala, one of this year’s recipients, and the one set to deliver the Commencement address on June 22, has established clear academic ties with the Israeli apartheid regime and has been one of the leading voices opposing the boycott of Israel. AUB’s choice of honoree forces us to wonder whether this is no mere coincidence, 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 and that most advocates of the Palestinian cause have endorsed. This shows a lack of concern for the fate of Palestinian victims of Israeli oppression, disrespect for universal human rights, and a disregard for the sentiments of the Lebanese community that supports Palestinian rights.
Ms. Donna Shalala served as U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services for eight years under President Bill Clinton. In these eight years, her administration systematically brought about the starvation of the Iraqi people under one of the most brutal sanctions regime in human history; directly killing 1-1.5 million Iraqis, 225,000-500,000 of whom were children. During her tenure as Health Secretary, she accepted honorary degrees from two Israeli universities: the Technion University (in 1994) and the University of Haifa (in 1998). After taking on the presidency of the University of Miami, she has worked to encourage partnership agreements signed between her university and Israel’s Bar Ilan and Ben Gurion Universities. In July of 2011, Ms. Shalala was awarded another honorary doctorate from the Ben Gurion University. At the celebration she stated that "I am honored to share this special day with the students and scholars at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. BGU proudly represents Israel's abiding commitment to the special values and tradition of higher education." All four of these universities, as with most other Israeli universities, are deeply enmeshed in discrimination against Palestinian students, Israeli military training and the development of weaponry used against Palestinian and Lebanese civilians.
Consistently misrepresenting the boycott of Israeli academic institutions as a boycott of Israeli academics, Shalala has been a leading opponent of the academic boycott. The highlight of her anti-boycott crusade came in July 2010 when she participated in a 13-member delegation of U.S. university presidents to Palestine organized by Project Interchange, an offshoot of the Zionist lobby group—and leading proponent of a U.S.-led war against Iran—the American Jewish Committee. The dual purpose of the delegation was to engage these university leaders in developing partnership with Israeli academic institutions—a goal clearly achieved with the University of Miami’s subsequent partnerships—and to fight the academic boycott.
Less than a month before travelling with the delegation, Shalala told the Jerusalem Post that she had "joined the presidents of the major American universities to denounce the boycott of Israeli academics. I sent a personal letter to the presidents of universities here, as did the other presidents, promising there would be no boycott in the United States and that Israeli scholars would always be welcome in the US." Ironically, but far from surprisingly, Shalala’s Lebanese surname resulted in her detention and humiliation for over two hours by Israeli airport security. Astonishingly, she shrugged off this act of racism by saying: "While I was inconvenienced, Israel's security and the security of travelers is far more important."
As with Wolfensohn before her, there can be no doubt that Shalala is an accomplished individual, and even that many of her accomplishments may have benefited groups of people. There are hundreds of people around the world, however, who have done a great deal for humanity without also being complicit in crimes like the sanctions imposed on the Iraqi people, or with the apartheid regime of Israel.
Why are AUB administrators adamant in selecting those marred by such complicity for the bestowal of honorary awards? What makes AUB ignore the ongoing calls and petitions from its own community and the community at large to abide by the principles of academic boycott? What was the role of numerous lectures, conferences and seminars on the Arab Spring held this past year at AUB, if they failed to inspire the AUB administration and community to understand the basic value that led to these revolutions, namely: dignity. Why would AUB advocate for a candidate for an honorary doctorate by pointing to their ethnic origin without pointing to their moral principles? These questions are not addressed to the AUB administration, which seems to be disrespectful of voices of its own students, faculty, and staff, and unconcerned to open a dialogue with its own constituency, but to the community in which AUB is embedded. It is about time for the community to oblige AUB to act as an institution embedded in a society that stands by moral principles of humanity, dignity, and equal rights.