Ashcroft's honorary degree protested at Truman State

Friday, May 8, 2009 | 10:27 a.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — A Missouri university's decision to award an honorary degree to former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft is drawing protests from some students and faculty members.

Ashcroft will receive an honorary doctorate and deliver the commencement speech Saturday at Truman State University in the northeast Missouri town of Kirksville. As governor, he signed into law a measure upgrading the school from a regional teacher's college into a selective, statewide liberal arts campus.

Nearly 300 opponents signed a petition "voicing discontent" with the decision by the Board of Governors of the school, which has close to 6,000 students according to its Web site. A silent protest is planned during Ashcroft's speech.

Among the issues cited for the protest are Ashcroft's opposition to gay marriage and his support of expanded interrogation techniques that critics equate with torture while leading the U.S. Department of Justice after the Sept. 11 attacks.

"He has a history of supporting torture and institutionalized discrimination," said graduating senior Sally Hertz, a sociology and anthropology major from Nevada, Iowa. "Honorary degrees are supposed to represent the values of our university. I don't think these are things Truman stands for."

Ashcroft, who turns 67 on Saturday, was attorney general during President George W. Bush's first term before resigning for health reasons. He spent eight years as Missouri governor and six years as a U.S. senator. He opened a Washington lobbying firm in 2005.

A spokesman for The Ashcroft Group did not respond to an Associated Press request for comment.

School officials said they selected Ashcroft for the role he played in boosting the prestige of a school previously known as Northeast Missouri State.

"Ashcroft was chosen for the role he played in our university's history," said Heidi Templeton, a school spokeswoman. "We are a public university where all are encouraged to think freely and express their opinion."

History professor Thomas Zoumaras objects to what he calls Ashcroft's violation of international law covering acceptable interrogation techniques. He also disputed the former governor's role in transforming Truman State, saying that the school's former president Charles McClain, who will also receive an honorary degree on Saturday, deserves more of the credit for the school's elevated stature.

Zoumaras and Hertz said they don't want opponents to disrupt the graduation ceremony. Among the tactics endorsed for protesters are not clapping, turning their backs while Ashcroft speaks and holding up copies of the half-page protest ad from the school newspaper.

Former Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan, who died in a plane crash while campaigning against Ashcroft in the 2000 Senate race, also will receive an honorary degree Saturday. Carnahan posthumously defeated Ashcroft, with the challenger's widow, Jean, taking the seat until a special election two years later.

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James Herring May 8, 2009 | 10:51 a.m.

The statement, "Honorary degrees are supposed to represent the values of our university. I don't think these are things Truman stands for."

How many people have gotten them that have had dubious records? Past presidents from Arkansas come to mind along with athletes and other public officials. No one is perfect. And no higher education institution is without skeletons.

Usually bestowing a degree on someone is a nice way to get them to come to your place, make a speech, get publicity for both the person and the institution, and receive a piece of paper. It's not like anyone who has ever gotten an honorary degree has ever used that on a resume.

And of course there are the people who protest who also get noticed. A vicious circle I know.

My opinion, this is non-news. Both getting the honorary degree and the protest.

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