DENVER– On the television in the downtown Hyatt lobby lounge, a news promo featured a reporter talking about President Obama’s campaign to win consent from Congress to bomb Syria in response to apparent chemical weapons attacks launched by President Bashar al-Assad against rebel forces that allegedly killed nearly 1500 outside Damascus.
In a dining room up the escalator, former President George W. Bush sat in an armchair on a stage with a vase of flowers beside him and spoke about global health and efforts to battle disease in Africa. He was receiving an award for global service from the University of Denver Korbel School of International Studies.
On the sidewalks outside, about 30 protesters were waving homemade signs and bullhorns at the line of sleek sedans pulling into the hotel’s valet parking area.
“Torture, lies, illegal wars do not deserve DU awards.”
“Dean Hill brought a criminal to town. So now we’re marching all around.”
The debate over Syria and its weapons of mass destruction and the possibility that the United States might soon begin bombing another Middle Eastern country has raised Bush’s profile once again, five years after he left office. It has also cast the Korbel award in exactly the light Dean Christopher Hill and the school’s communications department have been trying to deflect for months.
“It was a great honor for the university to host President Bush at the Korbel Dinner this year,” said DU Chancellor Robert Coombe in a release Monday night. “It was a great night for DU.”
Korbel spokesperson Kim DeVigil told the Independent that the dinner was a sold out success. More than 1,100 guests attended, each donating thousands or tens of thousands of dollars. She said that, at $670,000 total, the event set a new record for the most money raised by the school on a single night.
She also said attendees were undisturbed by the protesters.
Monday’s hotel clash was perhaps the last chapter in a campus-based revolt against the Bush fundraiser that has been flaring up at regular intervals ever since plans to present him with an award were announced in the last weeks of June by Korbel Dean Christopher Hill’s office.
Korbel message control has mostly fallen to DeVigil and she seemed Monday night to be meticulously prepared for a last round of media meetings and more than ready to put the event behind her.
“This is what universities are about,” she said. “They’re about a diversity of voices and ideas. They’re about civil discourse and bringing in different opinions and discussions in a respectful way… The money we’ve made tonight will go to scholarships, faculty research, new programs.”
Many of the protesters, however, see the award as an affront to the kind of open debate that’s supposed to be championed in higher education. They say the way the award was planned and announced without faculty or student input demonstrated an insider, executive approach to university life, and that there was nothing appropriate about awarding an honor in the school’s name without discussion to a controversial president who presented faulty intelligence to win approval to invade Iraq and who was responsible for institutionalizing an open regime of U.S. torture there and around the world.
The Bush event was the sixteenth annual Korbel Dinner. DeVigil acknowledged that communication around this year’s event could have been better.
“Certainly, we were approached with concerns by faculty and students, and we need to open the process in the future,” she said.
Protesters pointed out that the school originally planned to honor Bush with an “Improving the Human Condition Award” but that, in the face of online and offline push back, Dean Hill reworked the award title, but again without open discussion on what it should be.
Over the summer, more than 1,900 students and alums signed online petitions decrying the award, and more than half of the Korbel School faculty signed a letter of protest. Professors were angry to have initially learned about the award from students or from circulating petitions and to have to rely on the media to discover subsequent news about it.
But as the dinner drew near, Hill’s office demonstrated increased wariness about transparency. Email notices went out asking university departments not to mention the event on social media. And the dinner was closed to the public and to the media.
“It was always going to be a closed event,” said DeVigil. “That was part of the arrangement from the beginning with the president, out of respect. This was never a public event. It’s a private fundraiser.”
Alan Gilbert, political theory and international politics professor at the school, said the lack of transparency was tied to a larger more obvious problem with the event.
“Look, primary stake-holders were left out of the discussion,” he said. “But think about that. Right now Obama is moving toward bombing Syria without the input or approval of the United Nations. This is patently illegal, and the immediate precedent for that is Bush. Bush is a war criminal. People died in prison because of how they were treated. The idea of giving him a global service award is just — it means overlooking major crimes.”
Gilbert echoes the opinion of many fellow faculty members when he says Dean Hill, who served as an ambassador under Bush, could have simply asked Bush to come speak to the dinner attendees, that giving him an award flies in the face of the legacy of Josef Korbel, the man the school is named after, who was a champion of international human rights.
“The money the school received tonight came at a price,” he said. “Bush wasn’t asked to address those mistakes. He is not repentant… There is a way to deal with these kinds of mistakes, and that is straight up. They didn’t ask him to do that.”