Should UJ confer degree on Obama?

​​Opinion Pieces​​
Opinion Pieces by Prof Chris Landsberg and Prof Farid Esack published in the Sunday Independent on 23 June, 2013.
US President’s intellect and distinct social achievements satisfy our criteria and policy, writes Chris Landsberg.
A handful of members of the University of Johannesburg (UJ) senate have started to publicly comment selectively and untruthfully on confidential discussions which recently took place in that important body regarding a proposal to confer an honorary doctorate on US President Barack Obama.
They are not only violating the rules of the senate and the university, but through their unfounded allegations, they are in fact casting aspersions on important university processes.
These colleagues are displaying a shocking disdain for their institution. Their allegations include suggestions, insinuations and innuendo to the effect that there has been no consultation, and that there is widespread dissent, deep divisions and even the “rigging” of voting processes.
My intention in this piece is not to dignify these spurious allegations with a response. Rather, as a member of the senate, I wish to defend not just the integrity of the senate and its members, but all relevant UJ institutions and processes relating to honorary degrees.
I wish to state unequivocally that my respect for the senate, legitimate UJ processes, the UJ leadership and council is solid and intact. To this end I wish to briefly outline and highlight key aspects of UJ policies, processes and procedures when it comes to deciding whether or not to award an honorary degree.
The awarding of honorary degrees at UJ is tightly regulated, ethically founded, process-driven and governed by a strict and meticulous set of policy guidelines.
All nominations for honorary degrees are submitted to a joint Council and Senate Honorary Degrees Committee (HDC) – a committee consisting of, among others, elected representatives of the senate, the chair of council, the principal and vice-chancellor, three deputy vice-chancellors, the registrar, executive deans and at least three members of council. Only candidates who receive unanimous support in the HDC will be referred to the next set of structures for further consultation and indication of support or disapproval.
The support of the senate is, for example, only considered to be sufficient if at least two-thirds of the senate members in attendance at a quorate sitting of the senate vote (by means of a secret ballot) in favour of a candidate. Note that the senate, which comprises primarily senior academics, also includes SRC and council representatives.
Furthermore, the UJ council will only consider the possible approval of the conferment of an honorary degree if at least 80 percent of its members present in a quorate meeting vote in favour.
It must also be noted that students are represented in the council. The council, although primarily comprising external experts, includes elected representatives from the senate, academic staff who are not full professors, non-academic staff as well as the SRC.
The processes described above apply strictly to all nominees for honorary degrees at UJ, Barack Obama included. The relevant UJ policy stipulates specific criteria for candidates deemed worthy of consideration for honorary degrees. Briefly stated, these criteria include outstanding intellectual contributions and outstanding contributions in public life aligned to the UJ vision, as well as distinctive social achievement.
From the processes and policy guidelines outlined, it becomes clear that those alleging lack of consultation are either wilfully ignorant of due process or in all likelihood simply mischievous. In fact, the high and stringent candidate approval thresholds set for all key committees in the honorary degrees process cannot be met without vigorous debate.
It has also been alleged by one or two members of the senate that the proposal for the possible awarding of an honorary doctorate to Obama was either deliberately brought late into the agenda of the senate or forced on to it.
Without seeking to violate the integrity and confidentiality of the senate’s discussions, it must be said that these allegations are completely unfounded. Anybody familiar with normal (university) committee processes will be familiar with the notion of supplementary agenda items – urgent and important items which due to various reasons are brought late into the agenda of a meeting.
It is conceivable that the proposal to offer Obama an honorary degree may have been one of the supplementary agenda items. The late inclusion of supplementary agenda items is standard and accepted practice.
In any case, when a supplementary agenda item is of unusual or great significance, members will discuss and deliberate – sometimes even vote – on whether it should be included or not before adding or removing it from the agenda. This would have been the route followed at the senate in deciding on the inclusion or exclusion of a supplementary agenda item such as the proposal to offer an honorary doctorate to Obama.
It seems that having “predicted” that the university would be split by the mere discussion of the candidacy of Obama for an honorary doctorate in relevant university structures and in accordance with due processes, this handful of colleagues (as reported in some media) have had to follow up on their “predictions” by engaging in all manner of activities aimed at sowing and fomenting (or at least projecting) the divisions they “predicted”. This appears, therefore, to have been a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The right thing for all of us to do is to await the finalisation of that process and to respect the final outcome.
We all must learn to live with legitimate democratic outcomes, even they go against our wishes. Those who have failed to make persuasive arguments and to thereby garner the necessary support inside legitimate structures should not only accept but also defend the final outcomes. It cannot be right for colleagues who are privileged members of authoritative university structures to risk bringing the university into disrepute, by going outside of the legitimate structures with unfounded allegations simply because they did not get their way.
Landsberg is the incumbent of the SARChi Chair: African Diplomacy and Foreign Policy, Faculty of Humanities; and Senior Associate, UJ School of Leadership. He writes in his personal capacity.
The argument that the University of Johannesburg is merely honouring the person, and not US, is absurd, writes Farid Esack.
The University of Johannesburg (UJ) has just dealt a significant blow to its reputation among human rights activists and progressive academics by deciding to award Barack Obama an honorary doctorate in law.
Awarding an honorary doctorate to a person by an institution of higher learning is a prestigious symbol which honours the person for their contribution to a particular academic field or, more generally, for their work and accomplishment in one or more areas relating to the world and humanity.
It is also a reflection on the institution awarding the honour.
Those honoured reflect the values of the institution, its moral compass and its ability to ensure that it honours and aligns itself with those who support justice, equality, freedom and a just peace.
But the UJ senate and council decision to award Obama an honorary degree is both deeply disappointing and insulting to the rich tradition of struggle for justice, equality and freedom in South Africa.
It sullies the reputation that the university earned when, in 2010, it became the first one in the world to break off ties with an Israeli university because of the latter’s support for Israeli apartheid and the occupation of Palestinian land.
The argument made by some of its academics that the award was made to Obama and not to the US regime was absurd.
It can be compared to honouring FW de Klerk because he was a much nicer man than PW Botha and that De Klerk, rather than his apartheid regime, was being honoured.
Under Obama, the number of US-drone attacks and extrajudicial killings in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia has risen dramatically, in clear violation of the international law prohibiting extrajudicial killings.
He has perfected the art of reducing war to mechanical acts of murder by computer games.
The administration has also employed drones in increasingly repugnant ways including in “signature strikes”, which choose targets based on computer-detected patterns of behaviour rather than specific, corroborated information.
The vast majority of the more than 4 000 people who have been killed in these drone attacks are innocent civilians and the others are alleged “terrorists” or “militants”.
Democracies which affirm the rule of law always refer to “alleged” criminals until they are judged otherwise in a court of law.
And yet here, Obama has set himself up as accuser, detective, protector, judge and executioner of a country that maintains military bases in 60 countries.
And now he is being honoured because he is the first coloured man to get into the position to so?
Moreover, the Obama administration has employed misleading techniques for counting drone fatalities – seemingly in order to obscure the actual collateral damage inflicted by these ostensibly “surgical” strikes.
The administration has automatically defined males of a certain age as “enemy combatants” for purposes of death-toll tallying.
Before his May 2013 announcement on new policies supposedly limiting presidential use of drone attacks, many drone strikes appear to have been either directly co-ordinated by the CIA – effectively rendering it a paramilitary group outside of direct congressional oversight – or a secretive military unit known as Joint Special Operations Command, which itself appears to co-ordinate strikes with the CIA.
Despite paying regular lip service to his desire to close the Guantanamo Bay prison facility, Obama’s administration has, in fact, continued the practice of indefinite detention.
The Guantanamo prison currently holds more than 150 detainees, most of whom have never been formally charged with a crime.
Some of them entered there when they were 13 years old and the oldest prisoner was incarcerated in his 70s.
That was 12 years ago – how can anyone with a pretence to the values of freedom and democracy hold anyone in detention without access to a fair trial for so long?
What a justly deserved outcry apartheid South Africa received when in the name of security it introduced detention without trial for periods of up to 90 days.
In recent months, as a number of those imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay have initiated a hunger strike to protest against their detention, the Obama administration has approved repeated force-feeding, in violation of the Geneva Conventions.
In June 2013, the Obama administration revealed for the first time that there are 46 detainees it plans to hold indefinitely without trial.
Since the inception of the non-civilian military tribunal at Guantanamo Bay, only seven convictions have been handed down and five of those have been overturned on appeal in federal district courts. None has been upheld on appeal.
Obama’s Justice Department has charged six individuals with leaking “classified information” under the Espionage Act of 1917, a law enacted shortly after the US entry into World War I to prevent the government interfering in military operations, and later used to threaten labour leaders during the Red Scare – and, over the years since, imprison several other “enemies” of the government.
All previous US presidents combined had only charged three individuals under the provisions of this law.
But of the six individuals charged by Obama’s Justice Department, one revealed information regarding potential financial mismanagement at the National Security Agency, two revealed information on potentially illegal abuses of civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan by the US military, and two revealed information they believed might help prevent a US invasion of Iran.
Now, UJ, an institution that appears to have forged a new path of progress, equality and justice from its racist and oppressive foundations, has opted to confer an honour on a person who does not personify any of these noble ideals.
The UJ community and all those who value justice must rise against this retrogressive move.
Esack is the head of the Department of Religion Studies at UJ.
Opinion pieces were originally published in the Sunday Independent on June 23 2013.



Prof Farid Esack
Prof Farid Esack.chri
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