On May 1st, 2008, Washington University in St. Louis announced that it intends to award alumna Phyllis Schlafly with a doctorate of humane letters due to the strong influence of her writing and activism in American politics and culture. Although we believe that people of all political positions should be given equal consideration for this honor, we object to the Board of Trustees’ choice of Phyllis Schlafly. We find her work inappropriate for academic recognition from Washington University, whose mission statement and diversity initiatives are in direct opposition to the opinions and statements that earned Mrs. Schlafly political recognition.
Although it is true that Mrs. Schlafly has been active in political discourse for the past 30 years, we feel that what she has contributed is based on anti-intellectual and exclusionary tactics that work against the stated goals and interests of this University. Mrs. Schlafly has pioneered a political ideology that disallows balanced debate by stifling the opinions of others rather than engaging with them in an equal forum. The decision to recognize her work in the name of free discussion is hypocritical, and would place public doubt on the University’s commitment to its own stated mission of encouraging a global community of creative thinkers.
Furthermore, we believe that her lifelong work to dismiss women’s rights and oppose cultural tolerance makes the conferral of an honorary degree at Commencement an insult to the female and international students who must receive their degrees alongside her. According to Washington University’s mission statement, central to this institution is attracting “people of great ability from all types of backgrounds.” Ms. Schlafly has, through elitist, sexist, and racist writings and speech, specifically attempted to prevent these people from achieving their intellectual aspirations. Her work is also in direct opposition to the diversity objectives of Washington University, such as those set forth by Chancellor Wrighton in 2006: “We should not accept actions that create an environment discriminatory toward those of a different religion, race, sexual orientation, gender, or cultural or ethnic background.” Giving Phyllis Schlafly this honor not only accepts discrimination; it praises her for popularizing and legitimizing it as well.
Washington University’s mission statement goes on to explain that the central goal of this institution is “to prepare students with the attitudes, skills, and habits of lifelong learning and with leadership skills, enabling them to be useful members of a global society.” Honoring Mrs. Schlafly promotes a role model who opposes the equal education of all members of the global community. Mrs. Schlafly’s work is based on a belief that, based on gender and race, certain groups of people should be denied the freedom necessary to utilize their abilities, and we hope that the University stands behind its many clearly stated oppositions to this sort of exclusion.
We believe that honorary doctorates can be successful in many ways, and that the University should not unnecessarily weigh candidates’ goals and values in the process of deciding who should be held up as an exemplary product of a Washington University education. However, Mrs. Schlafly’s achievements and objectives are in direct opposition to the stated tenets of this institution, and because of this we believe that Washington University’s decision to recognize her work with its prestigious award is both inappropriate and offensive.