Lehigh University faculty overwhelmingly vote to ask trustees to rescind Trump’s honorary degree

Lehigh University faculty voted overwhelmingly to urge the Bethlehem school’s Board of Trustees to rescind President Donald Trump’s honorary degree.

More than 80 percent of participating faculty voted “yes” on the motion, with a 296-50 vote. More than 75 percent of eligible faculty participated.

The school awarded Trump an honorary degree in 1988, and the trustees decided against taking action last year after two similar petitions circulated.

This time, Lehigh professors said, is the faculty is speaking with its own voice, and their overwhelming vote will be made an official part of the school’s record.

Their motion calls for the trustees to revoke Trump’s honorary degree. If the board decides not to take action, the motion says, they would like an explanation of how his statements square with the school’s values.

The motion states that Trump, who accepted the school’s honorary degree, is part of the school’s community, but he makes comments that are not in line with its values.

“He has through a series of well documented statements exhibited behavior antithetical to Lehigh values,” the motion states. “These statements are unacceptable and provide strong evidence of an ongoing disregard for the values that are the foundation of this university.”

The results of the vote will be sent to the trustees, and then it will be up to the board to determine a course of action, said Doug Mahony, a professor and the chair of the faculty steering committee.

He said the faculty regularly votes to recommend motions. In this case, the school’s 472 voting faculty members had a week to fill out an electronic ballot and vote for, against, or abstain from the motion. 357 votes were cast, and only 11 were abstentions.

On Tuesday, the school’s student senate passed a resolution with a 38-2-1 vote that said they supported the faculty vote and echoed support for revoking Trump’s honorary degree.

Michael Raposa, a religion studies professor, said the message isn’t about Trump’s politics, but his behavior, as well as his sexist, racist and Islamophobic comments.

“We will be able to say Lehigh faculty do not support that kind of behavior. We don’t honor that kind of behavior,” Raposa said.

Faculty decided to start the effort in January, after it was revealed that Trump asked why the country had to accept immigrants from “shithole” countries, he said.

The motion also lists a number of Trump’s statements: his comments in the wake of the Charlottesville protest of white supremacists that there were “very fine people on both sides,” his now-famous 2005 comments to Access Hollywood’s Billy Bush about grabbing women’s genitals, his call for a shutdown of Muslims entering the U.S., and his encouragement of violence at campaign rallies like his comments in Cedar Rapids, Iowa to “knock the crap” out of somebody “getting ready to throw a tomato” and promising to pay their legal fees.

In the motion’s preamble, the faculty say they have to adhere to Lehigh’s principles and enforce them consistently.

“By staying silent we are bystanders; we normalize hate speech, condone discrimination and bullying; we enable people in positions of power to corrode the foundations of civil society; and we abdicate our commitment and responsibility to uphold and sustain our core values. Perhaps most important, what message do we send to students and staff and faculty about racist and sexist and disrespectful speech?” it states.

Professor Anne Meltzer said that there’s a difference between someone who attends the school to get a degree and someone like Trump who receives an honorary degree.

She said the motion is more broadly about the school’s values.

“This isn’t about whether you’re a Republican or you’re a Democrat. Those statements are sexist, they are racist and they have this intention of demeaning and intimidating large sections of the population based on a demographic characteristic,” she said. “That’s not what universities are about.”

The board in 2015 decided to revoke Bill Cosby’s honorary degree after he faced sexual assault accusations, saying his admitted behavior was “inconsistent with the character and high standards” expected of honorees.

University spokeswoman Lori Friedman noted that the motion hasn’t been presented to the board, but affirmed that community members have a right to express their viewpoints.

“Free inquiry and free speech and expression, including the right to open dissent, are essential to a thriving academic community,” she wrote in a statement.

The trustees were presented with petitions twice before.

They considered a previous petition on Jan. 12 and decided not to take any action at that time, Friedman previously said.

In October, the trustees announced they would take “no action” on a petition calling for Trump’s degree to be rescinded.

“The Board of Trustees remains committed to the university’s values and to its ‘­Principles of Our Equitable Community,’ which recognize each person’s right to think and speak as dictated by personal belief and to respectfully disagree with or counter another’s point of view,” the board said in a statement.

“These values provide meaningful guidance when deliberating or making decisions that impact the Lehigh community,” the statement said.

Recent graduate Kelly McCoy started the petition in August, right after Trump’s response to the deadly protest in Charlottesville, Va. She previously told The Morning Call she felt Trump’s America First policy and comments about immigrants do not reflect Lehigh’s guiding principles.

“Whatever I say is associated with my identity as a Lehigh graduate,” McCoy said in August. “Trump is also essentially an ambassador for Lehigh University, but his values don’t represent Lehigh.”

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