I would like to take this opportunity to bring you up to date on developments that have recently put our university in the media spotlight.
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
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.
By accepting the Honorary Doctorate, President Barack Obama elevates the global stature of our university. 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.
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.
The award of an honorary doctorate to 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.
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 and to UJ. 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