As you may have read in the national press, the university where I work, Washington University in St. Louis, is honoring the anti-feminist activist Phyllis Schlafly with an honorary doctorate at the university's commencement this week. This choice of award has generated protest, not only by faculty and students at Washington University, but also by others in higher education. But it's not the political fight between liberals and conservatives that worries me; I think there is a bigger issue at stake here, one which cuts to the heart of what a university should be about. In the increasingly overpriced, competitive academic world, are universities sacrificing their intellectual values to what is basically a marketing effort, designed to attract students by featuring celebrity speakers at commencement? While Phyllis Schlafly has garnered most of the attention in the press, Washington University is presenting another honorary doctorate that disturbs me just as much: to Chris Matthews, the MSNBC political pundit. Honoring both Schlafly and Matthews makes this commencement less about celebrating the academic achievements of the Class of '08, and more about using celebrities to help the university's image, which in turn is supposed to attract more students. Why do I oppose honoring Matthews and Schlafly? Not because I disagree with their social views - I do, but one of the most important functions of a university is to expose students to contrary ideas, a key element of an education in critical thinking. It's fine for these people to be invited on campus to speak (although if you took Phyllis Schlafly's views and replaced the word 'women' with the word 'blacks', no respectable campus would touch her with a 10-foot pole). But an honorary doctorate from a university is more than a speaking invitation, it's recognizing some sort of achievement of the recipient, and really, that achievement should reflect the purpose of a university and include a contribution to the world of ideas. I'm not saying that all people honored at commencement should be scholars by any means - it's clear that many social and political leaders make important contributions to our society's ideas, without writing technical papers or academic monographs. So it's disappointing that someone who opposes the teaching of evolution in school would be honored by one of the world's best biological research universities, that a university training thousands of women to be scientists and scholars would honor someone who claims that feminist professors are "too emotional to handle intellectual or scientific debate". The same lack of any intellectual standards is apparent when universities invite celebrity TV pundits like Chris Matthews. Every year people like Matthews, Tim Russert, and Charlie Gibson rake in the honorary doctorates all over the US, but are they really being honored for outstanding political journalism, or just to prove that the university has the star power to attract big names at commencement? Matthews is a pundit whose commentary is usually filled with insights like this:
"Women like a guy who's president. Check it out. The women like this war. I think we like having a hero as our president. It's simple. We're not like the Brits. We don't want an indoor prime minister type, or the Danes or the Dutch or Italians, or a Putin. Can you imagine Putin getting elected here? We want a guy as president." - Hardball, May 1 2003, the day of President Bush's 'Mission Accomplished' landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln
While politics may be the obvious thing that's getting people upset, it's not what bothers me most. I care about the health of our universities. I think they make an important contribution to our society. While business also plays an important role in our society, universities are supposed to provide a space for science and scholarship that transcends self-interest, an absolutely bedrock part of a healthy intellectual community. My fear is that as the image of the university gets degraded, by sky-high tuition, by huge student loans that generate kickbacks for administrators, by a focus on marketing campaigns, by an aggressive pursuit of patent income that suggests universities will bend backwards over their principles for favors from business, we'll see the support of non-profit oriented intellectual work become devalued by our society, and with the university's reputation will go our society's willingness to support essential, basic research, the best of which is usually supported by tax dollars. The perceived value of a higher education, already being undermined by the huge debt students incur, will diminish as universities just become another institution competing for your attention and your money. And do I have to emphasize why it's bad, in a country that is already falling behind the rest of the developed world in education rates, for people to turn away from college education? A place like Washington University shouldn't have to bolster it's image with celebrity speakers - it already has an oustanding academic reputation, which is what should really be the thing that attracts students. Schlafly is a 2-time graduate of Washington University, and her family plays an important role in St. Louis, so let's name a building or a quad after her, which is the traditional way a university honors families that make financial contributions. The honorary doctorates should be saved for people who deserve them, without regard to celebrity status.