Message from the Vice-Chancellor to UJ staff – 25 June 2013

​​​I would like to take this opportunity to bring you up to date on developments related to two matters that have recently put our university in the media spotlight. Firstly, I wish to share with you our excitement at the fact that in the afternoon of 29th June 2013, our Soweto Campus will be the location of USA President Barack Obama’s Pan-African Town Hall event. This event will be broadcast globally on most major television news networks and will be held with youth leaders from South Africa and from across the African continent. Secondly, I will give an update on the matter of the candidacy of Dr Barack Obama for an honorary degree at UJ.​​
The controversy surrounding the decision of President Barack Obama’s visit to South Africa, and the objections of a small minority to UJ’s processes leading to the award of an honorary doctorate, should not detract from either the immensity or the main purpose of the occasion for South Africa and for our university.
Now, this is the first official visit by the President of the USA to South Africa. From some media reports you would think that receiving an honorary doctorate at the University of Johannesburg was the sole and main purpose of his visit to South Africa. President Barack Obama is a guest of the South African government and the South African people. The purpose of his visit to our Soweto Campus is solely to engage with youth leaders, and as a university, whose vision is, “An international university of choice, anchored in Africa, dynamically shaping the future,” we are honoured to host such a Pan-African and global event focussing on a matter that is close to our own objectives, namely, youth development.
Furthermore, President Obama’s focus on youth leadership falls squarely in line with our own values of Conversation, Imagination, Regeneration, and Ethical Foundation. In this sense the controversy that has been generated also speaks to our track record as an institution that does not avoid difficult issues – nationally and internationally. Our commitment to encouraging the expression of a range of diverse views through dialogue and debate is evident on this and many other issues since our founding in 2005. And, our decision to confer an honorary degree on Dr Barack Obama is in line with our disposition and track record of not being afraid to tackle difficult issues and pursue worthwhile causes.
In having chosen our Soweto campus as the venue for the dialogue with youth leaders, President Barack Obama elevates the global stature of our university. His presence in Soweto also invokes the connected struggles for human and civil rights in both our countries as well as the place of the youth in these struggles. Our mutual focus on youth development makes UJ and President Barack Obama ideal partners in the quest for the development of leadership skills among the youth of the world. As a university, we appreciate particularly his conversational stance towards the youth as it suggests openness to being challenged and willingness to challenge in turn.
We look forward to youth leaders from UJ and our top feeder high schools taking their place among their counterparts from fellow African countries, Kenya and Nigeria, as they engage intensely with President Obama this Saturday at our Soweto Campus. Our aspiration, as you will no doubt be aware, is to become an international and respected Pan Africa epicentre of critical engagement, reflection and scholarship, and we stand ready to engage leaders, scholars, activists and students from all over the world in pursuit of advancing human dignity and human rights. In fact, rather than avoid these matters, we strive to place ourselves at the centre of critical debate and conversation in South Africa.
Now onto the second matter: the award of an honorary doctorate on Dr Barack Obama. Following due process within the Faculty of Law, the Joint Senate and Council Committee responsible for the consideration of candidates for the award of honorary doctoral degrees, Senate and Council,
successively, deliberated upon and considered the conferral of an honorary doctor of laws degree. Unanimous support from all the members of the Honorary Degrees Committee was obtained in accordance with section 7.2.2 (a) of the Honorary Degrees Charter. At the subsequent Senate meeting, 72.6% of members supported the conferral, and therefore, the voting outcome of Senate was compliant with the requirement reflected in section 7.2.2 (c) of the Charter, namely that at least two-thirds of Senate members present at the Senate meeting must support the nomination. Subsequently, the nomination was tabled at the meeting of Council, and after deliberation, the conferral was approved, exceeding the requirement of at least 80% of the members of Council present voting in favour (refer to Charter, section 7.3). In addition to this, four external members of Council that were absent from the meeting sent the confirmation of their support by email.
From the above, you will note that the awarding of honorary degrees at UJ is process-driven and governed by a strict set of policy guidelines regulating the relevant procedures. Allegations of a lack of consultation and/or undemocratic practices, made by a few members of Senate, in the consideration of Dr Barack Obama’s nomination for an honorary degree are wholly and completely without foundation, and these allegations are rejected.
Not only have the governance processes been followed meticulously in this particular case, but we are confident about Dr Barack Obama’s eligibility for consideration for an honorary doctorate at UJ. As the motivation presented by the Faculty of Law to the Honorary Degrees Committee, Senate and Council shows, Dr Barack Obama meets all our criteria for outstanding leadership that contributes to human development and public scholarship, and it is in line with the UJ vision, mission and values. Suggestions that the only thing qualifying Dr Barack Obama for nomination for an honorary doctorate at UJ is that he is Black, or the first Black president of the USA, must be intended only as a malicious insult to both Dr Barack Obama and UJ. One need not agree with or even like Dr Barack Obama to recognize him as one who rose from humble and unlikely beginnings to become one of the most gifted, talented and influential leaders in the world today. Nor need one like UJ to know that we always set the highest standards of excellence and stature built upon an ethical foundation for ourselves, our students and our alumni.
Importantly, and on the basis of his compelling vision for world peace, and his potential to achieve it, Dr Barack Obama was awarded the Noble Peace Prize during his first term of office as President of the USA, a rare achievement among serving presidents. Admittedly, the sheer military and economic power of the USA in the world will necessarily complicate the tenure of any USA President. A further complicating factor for Dr Barack Obama is that he has had to deal with the aftermath of both 9-11 and the economic meltdown of 2008. This also means that his presidency of the USA came at a time of heightened expectations, both inside and outside the USA, not least in Africa. Of course Dr Barack Obama is not perfect, and he and his government have at times taken decisions that many disagree with strongly. There is reason also to believe that a large part of some people’s disappointment with Dr Obama is a function of their expectations of what they think he should/could do. This could explain in part why it does seem as if Dr Barack Obama is in some ways being judged by some more sternly than any of his predecessors.
Now, on Saturday, the 22nd of June 2013, we received a memorandum from about 80 persons, some of whom were UJ students, who had marched illegally to demonstrate their opposition to the awarding of an honorary doctorate to Dr Barack Obama. These are the views of persons comprising less than 0.1% of the UJ community. Nevertheless, and consistent with our values of Conversation, Imagination, Regeneration and Ethical Foundation, we chose to receive and to acknowledge the memorandum of the protesters, which we will present to the various university bodies.
Satisfied that all procedural and substantive matters have now been duly and diligently attended to in respect of the award of an honorary doctor of laws degree on Dr Barack Obama, the UJ Council has now finalized the matter, and in this regard, the honorary degree will be awarded in the future at an appropriate occasion.
I’m sure that you will join me in welcoming President Obama to South Africa, to UJ and to our Soweto campus. Similarly, I have no doubt that, like me, you are looking forward to welcoming Dr Barack Obama as a UJ alumnus.
Professor Ihron Rensburg
Vice-Chancellor and Principal
President Barack Hussein Obama became the 44th president of the United States of America in 2009, President Obama has an illustrious career. He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts from Columbia University in 1981. He entered Harvard Law School in 1988 where he was selected as an editor of the Harvard Law Review at the end of his first year. In his second year he became the first ever Black president of that journal. He worked as an associate at law firms during university holidays. In 1991 he graduated with a Juris Doctor degree, magna cum laude.
In 1991 Obama accepted a two-year position as Visiting Law and Government Fellow at the University of Chicago Law School to work on his first book. He taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago Law School for twelve years, first as a lecturer from 1992 to 1996, and then as a senior lecturer from 1996 to 2004.
In 1993, he joined an attorney law firm specializing in civil rights litigation and neighbourhood economic development, where he was an associate for three years from 1993 to 1996, and then counsel from 1996 to 2004. Throughout his career he demonstrated his exceptional commitment to community work and used the law as a tool to improve the lives of ordinary Americans.
His presidency brought the hope of changing the climate of international relations. It created the opportunity tostrengthen international diplomacy and to increase cooperation between peoples, and raised the hopes of a world without nuclear arms. The international community looked forward to his country recognising the role that the United Nations and other international institutions can play in in resolving even the most difficult international conflicts by dialogue and negotiations. The world also looked forward to the United States, under his leadership, playing a more constructive role in meeting the great climatic challenges the world is confronting. It looked forward to that country providing the leadership to strengthen democracy and human rights all over the world. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009.
After assuming office Obama issued executive orders and presidential memoranda directing the United States military to develop plans to withdraw troops from Iraq. He ordered the closing of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, but Congress prevented the closure by refusing to appropriate the required funds and preventing moving any Guantanamo detainee into the United States or to other countries. Obama reduced the secrecy given to presidential records.
Obama appointed two women to serve on the Supreme Court in the first two years of his Presidency, including the first ever Hispanic Supreme Court Justice. Following these appointment, three of the nine judges of the Supreme Court are female, the highest ever in American history.
The Obama administration proposed new regulations on power plants, factories and oil refineries in an attempt to limit greenhouse gas emissions and to curb global warming.
He signed an act that extended the federal hate-crime law to include crimes motivated by a victim’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability. He also signed an act to fulfil a promise he made in the 2008 presidential campaign to end the Don’t ask, Don’t tell policy of 1993 that had prevented gay and lesbian people from serving openly in the United States Armed Forces. He instructed agencies to consider laws affectinglesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender when issuing financial aid to foreign countries. In 2013 the Obama administration filed briefs which urged the Supreme Court to rule in favour of same-sex couples in two cases before it.
In 2010 Obama signed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, commonly called Obamacare or theAffordable Care Act, and also commonly known as Obama’s Health Care Reform. This federal statute represents the most significant government expansion and regulatory overhaul of the U.S. healthcare system since the mid-1960s.
In March 2010, Obama took a public stance against plans by the Israeli government to continue building Jewish housing projects in predominantly Arab neighbourhoods of East Jerusalem. During the same month, an agreement was reached with the administration of the Russian President to replace the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treatywith a new pact reducing the number of long-range nuclear weapons in the arsenals of both countries by about one-third. The new treaty was signed in April 2010 and ratified by the U.S. Senate in December 2010.
Although the United States is not at present a party to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, it has under Obama’s leadership engaged with State Parties to the Rome Statute on issues of concern. It is willing to consider assistance in response to specific requests from the I.C.C. prosecutor and other court officials, consistent with U.S. law, when it is in U.S. national interest to do so. Under his leadership the United States is working to strengthen national justice systems and supports hoc international tribunals and hybrid courts which seek to hold those who intentionally target innocent civilians accountable.
Since November 2009, the United States has participated in an observer capacity in meetings of the I.C.C. Assembly of States Parties (ASP). The United States sent an observer delegation to the I.C.C. Review Conference held in Kampala, Uganda from May 31 to June 11, 2010.
Further, the United States under Obama’s leadership announced that it will soon join the more than 65 countries which have already signed a landmark treaty regulating the multibillion-dollar global arms trade. Considering that the United States produces more arms than any other country in the world, this will contribute greatly to the first major international campaign to stem the illicit trade in weapons that fuel conflicts and extremists.
The University’s vision is to be an international university of choice, anchored in Africa, dynamically shaping its future. Its mission to support this vision is to inspire its community to transform and serve humanity through innovation and the collaborative pursuit of knowledge. The values which underpin this vision and mission are, imagination, conversation, regeneration and an ethical foundation, and Obama has demonstrated distinguished social and intellectual achievement related to the University’s vision, mission, values and strategic goals and would thus be a worthy recipient of the degree Legum Doctoris (Doctor of Laws) honorabilis causa.
Patrick O’Brian (Executive Dean: Faculty of Law
Dawie De Villiers (Professor: Faculty of Law)
6 June 2013
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