Outcry is escalating around the decision made by the University of Denver’s international studies school to honor former President George W. Bush at a fundraising dinner this September. In addition to 1,500 students and alumni protesting the award, 24 of 40 full-time faculty members at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies have signed a letter decrying the honor.
“When we first learned of the award to the former President, ‘for improving the human condition,’ we were shocked, disappointed, and embarrassed in light of his administration’s decisions to repudiate the U.S.’s responsibilities as a signatory of the UN’s Convention against Torture by authorizing the use of waterboarding of prisoners,” wrote members of the faculty in the July 5 letter to Dean Christopher Hill, a top diplomat in Bush’s administration, University Provost Gregg Kvistad and Chancellor Robert Coombe.
Among faculty who signed the petition are political conservatives who agree with their liberal and moderate colleagues that the award damages the reputation of a department that, beyond most others at DU, has distinguished itself internationally. The collective letter asserts that there are many individuals deserving of the honor, but that “the former president is not one of them.”
Their letter was given to The Colorado Independent on the condition that the names of the faculty members who signed not be revealed.
Controversy ignited in June when the Korbel School announced that an award for “improving the human condition” would go to Bush. In early July, hundreds of students and alumni banded together under the leadership of Christine Hart, a 2012 Korbel graduate, to write and sign a petition to the university administration. The mobilization of the students, current and former, continues to gain momentum as the Facebook page “Josef Korbel School Against Bush ‘Improving the Human Condition’ Award” still attracts a stream of daily discussion, and the petition continues to gain signatures.
In response to criticism, the administration renamed the honor. President Bush is now set to receive the Global Service Award, rather than an award for Improving the Human Condition. In explaining the name change, Korbel communications director Kim DeVigil cites Bush’s “presidential and post-presidential work in Africa on AIDS, cervical cancer and malaria.”
When the petition reached 1,500 signatures on July 12, Hart wrote a personal letter to Hill expressing serious concern for her alma mater Korbel and contempt for what, in an interview with The Independent, she called the “empty gesture” of changing the award’s name.
“Having chosen to attend [Korbel] largely because of the human rights program and esteemed faculty, I am, at this moment, embarrassed to hold a degree from an institution that would make such an ill-considered choice,” reads Hart’s letter to the dean.
The uprising against honoring Bush took a few weeks to percolate beyond students, alumni and Facebook protesters nationwide, and out to Korbel’s faculty, whose scholarship and livelihoods are tied to the school’s reputation.
The opening of their letter makes it clear that the faculty members were displeased to have learned of the Bush award through former students or on the school’s website rather than more directly. Even after the announcement, faculty asserted that there should have been a discussion about whether to honor Bush, and how the decision, now that it has been made, will affect the school and its academic credibility. Faculty members also find it disrespectful that they learned of the award’s name change from a Washington Times article.
Global political economy lecturer Rob Prince, another longtime Korbel faculty member who signed the letter, says he and his colleagues started hearing rumors about the 2013 Korbel Dinner honoree before they were officially informed by the administration. And this year, unlike years past when faculty received email invitations announcing the dinner and the honorees, they were not personally notified.
“Since the general commitment of the university is to acknowledge stake-holders in a common enterprise which faculty, students and alumni are, this, too, is a mistake,” said Alan Gilbert, political theory and international politics professor at Korbel, who signed the faculty letter.
“It takes a great deal, a major error, to move more than 1,500 students and alumni and 24 faculty members to urge the university and the Korbel School to give up this mistaken course,” Gilbert continued.
Gilbert takes offense that neither the dean nor the administration has yet acknowledged the faculty letter.
Spokeswoman DeVigil said the school “considered all feedback it received.”
Dean Saitta, a DU anthropology professor and chapter president of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), sees “no problem with any political figure being invited to the university to speak.” At issue, he says, is how such decisions play out in a university setting where academics expect to be heard.
“These are self-inflicted wounds – they could have been avoided if there had been an advise and consent process,” he said.
Prince takes a risk speaking out about the situation without the security of a tenured position. He weighs that risk against the level to which he says the decision insults his political sensibilities and jeopardizes the good name and what he calls “the soul” of the school.
“I fail to see any difference between the title of the old award and the new one,” Prince said. “They’re clinging to the notion of giving George Bush an award. It’s like putting makeup on a corpse. They’re trying to downplay Bush’s war in Iraq, the destruction of an entire country, the creation of untold human casualties, the legalization of the American use of torture, by embellishing Bush’s good deeds in Africa. It just doesn’t work.”
The former president seems lately to be working at burnishing his image. He has spoken out on the need for immigration reform in the United States and worked to combat AIDs in Africa. The George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum has also emphasized his humanitarian efforts. The Washington Times cites a Gallup poll from June 10 showing Bush’s approval rating on the rise from 30 percent in 2009 to 49 percent today.
In an interview with CNN’s John King on April 25, the day before the dedication of his library, Bush spoke about the importance of life post-presidency.
“You learn that life doesn’t end after you’re president,” he said. “I am confident that when this chapter of our life is finished, that [Laura Bush and I will] be able to say that we’ve advanced the cause of peace and freedom…and helped improve the human condition.”
Critics at DU, including alumnus and donor Jim Wildt, express concern that the Korbel School is participating in the efforts to reshape Bush’s image.
“It’s almost like the brilliant student who isn’t quite there, but one professor says, ‘Oh yeah I see it,’” Wildt said, likening Bush to the student and Korbel to the professor in the comparison. “Then you say, ‘Alright, how can I highlight this kid so that maybe he can reach his potential?’ Very possibly, he may grow into that [award] later on.”
Wildt, a graduate of the DU Daniels College of Business, was surprised to realize that part of the motivation behind inviting Bush was financial, as Dean Hill expressed in an earlier email to faculty. DU is a private university that relies on contributions from benefactors.
Hill sent out an email to 10 fellow business school alumni donors, asking that they contact Chancellor Coombe’s office and express their opinion on the matter. As a group, Wildt and these donors contribute about $325,000 to DU per year, a significant amount that, due to their concerns about honoring Bush for his global service, they have considered withholding if Korbel goes through with the award.
Though Wildt admitted to having intentionally contacted Democratic donors whom he felt would be more readily opposed to the award, he emphasized that, despite accounts that claim otherwise, his objections are not partisan. Wildt himself is not a Democrat. In 2012, he ran against John Kidd in the 2012 Republican primary for Colorado State House District 1 and received a letter of endorsement from Chancellor Coombe.
On Monday, Wildt phoned Coombe’s office but has not been able to reach the Chancellor. He was able to speak to Coombe’s assistant, who, according to Wildt, told him that “everything is settled.”
“His secretaries are doing a good job of screening calls,” he said.
Saitta, too, has reached out to Korbel professors and administration to figure out what role the AAUP should take in the controversy. He has found that fellow professors, even tenured ones, are intimidated or worried about “shaking the boat.”
“I don’t know where things stand at the institutional level. The administration and its spokespeople have been silent on this,” said Saitta.
Saitta expressed serious concerns about a lack of openness and collaboration between the administration and the faculty, a problem he says academic institutions are facing all over the country.
“There’s absolutely a movement in the government right now to increase transparency,” Hart said. “Academia should be ahead of the curve on that.”
Despite the lack of direct response from the administration to dissent among students and faculty in regard to the award, Hart is pleased to see how the DU community and critics nationwide have mobilized in protest.
Professor Gilbert has been a part of the DU community for 38 years. When he first arrived, Josef Korbel himself took Gilbert under his wing and mentored him.
“For our school to give an award to the man who made torture publicly what America does and who launched an unprovoked aggression in Iraq would make Joe Korbel turn over in his grave,” Gilbert said. “It makes me shudder to feel something of what Korbel, who spent his life as a diplomat and international lawyer opposing such things, might have felt.”