Hundreds of students, staffers and alumni are protesting the University of Denver’s decision to honor former President George W. Bush with an award traditionally recognizing recipients for their work on behalf of humanity.
“It’s been mostly just a lot of surprise,” Seth Masket, associate professor of Political Science said of the award to be bestowed by the University’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies.
“Why Korbel sought out to do this and honor Bush in this way – it all seems very unusual.”
The Korbel School was founded by Josef Korbel, father of former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Among various other widely recognized graduates of Korbel is former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and U.S. Army General George Casey.
The school hosts the Korbel Dinner to present the award each year. In June, the Sept. 9 dinner was announced and invitations circulated both by mail and on the school’s website, pictured below, saying the 43rd president would be welcomed and honored as the 2013 recipient of the “Improving the Human Condition Award.”
On June 23, Christine Hart – a 2012 Korbel graduate with a master’s degree in human rights – saw the announcement and wrote a petition objecting to her alma mater’s choice of honoree.
“As students, alumni, faculty, and supporters of the Josef Korbel School and the University of Denver, we urge you to choose an alternative recipient of the 2013 ‘Improving the Human Condition Award’ who better represents a humanitarian spirit, a commitment to human rights and human dignity, and whose contributions and leadership have truly resulted in positive change,” reads the petition.
In addition to the petition, posted at Change.org, Hart set up a Facebook page called “Josef Korbel School Against Bush ‘Improving the Human Condition’ Award” as a platform where people frustrated by the decision could share information, organize courses of action and disseminate the petition.
On June 24, the petition had 10 signatures. By June 27, it had 750.
On June 25, award protestor Taylor Gibson signed the petition and beseeched Korbel Dean Christopher Hill, “Don’t make a mockery of my degree.” The next day, Kiela Parks, an alumna and former employee at the University’s Office of Alumni and External Relations employee who worked at the 2011 and 2012 Korbel dinners, signed onto the movement.
“That George W. Bush, who is known to have authorized torture and numerous other crimes against humanity, is being given an award for ‘improving the human condition’ is a sick, cruel joke,” she wrote.
Earlier this week, a member of the Facebook group noticed that the event page, pictured above, had changed. The name of Bush’s award had been removed.
Shortly thereafter, Dean Hill – who served as U.S. ambassador to Poland and Korea under Bush – sent around an email to faculty explaining the decision to honor his former boss. The email was written largely in response to the public controversy sparked by the petition as well as general conversation taking place among the Korbel community.
Hill did not address the sudden removal of the name of the award from the website. He wrote that the school was still searching for an appropriate title for the award to be given to Bush – “probably along the lines of ‘The Chancellor’s Award’ or the ‘Presidential Award’ or something similar.”
As made clear in Hill’s email and on the website, the annual dinner is the school’s biggest fundraising event. It draws significant contributions for research, scholarships, internships and other student and faculty needs.
“To have the former President attend is a tremendous opportunity to use the occasion of this dinner to raise much needed funds for our school,” Hill wrote in the email.
Korbel provides sponsorship benefits for attendees who donate between $4,000 and $50,000 to the school.
Masket acknowledged that bringing a high-profile figure to campus makes sense for fundraising purposes. Still, he’s uncomfortable with the choice.
“This seems to be an award that, as near as I can tell, was created for him,” Masket said. “An award for improving the human condition — that’s a fairly controversial statement to apply to President Bush.”
Hart similarly recognized the tension in the school’s conflicting priorities.
“We all see the value of bringing the president to campus,” she said.
“Our ultimate goal is that a humanitarian award not be bestowed upon an honoree like George W. Bush,” she continued. “This choice negates the humanitarian spirit.”
Protestors point to Bush’s actions they think should disqualify him from the award, at least as it was originally named. These actions, though not specifically cited in the petition, include starting the longest war in U.S. history for largely unjustifiable reasons; opening the extra-legal detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, where political detainees have been imprisoned without being charged with crimes; and overseeing a program of human-rights violations that included physical and psychological torture at black sites around the world and at the Baghdad prison Abu Ghraib.
Dean Hill didn’t immediately respond to messages left by The Colorado Independent with his office at 5 p.m. last night. At 6 p.m., however, his office sent out a letter to members of the DU community about the award.
Communications Director Kim DeVigil then contacted The Colorado Independent to say it is tradition that Korbel honors speakers at its annual dinner with an award.
“Initially we chose the title ‘Improving the Human Condition’ – a phrase that has been in the Josef Korbel School lexicon for several years,” she said. “We realize that this name does not clearly communicate the purpose of this recognition,” which, she explained, is why the school is in the process of choosing a new name for the award.
DeVigil said the school is also adjusting the focus of the award, honoring Bush for his “service as the 43rd president of the United States.” Critics of the decision say they’re disillusioned that financial needs seem to have trumped the traditional values and motivation in choosing an honoree.
Hill addressed those criticisms in his email. “We live in difficult times in which fundamental institutions such as the presidency are sometimes not respected,” he wrote.
[Image of Bush via Change.org.]
Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story said Dean Hill was ambassador to Iraq under Bush. He was in fact appointed to Iraq by President Obama. As the story now reports, Hill served as Bush ambassador to Poland and Korea.