SPRINGFIELD, Mass. – Since 1885, the University of Massachusetts has awarded nearly 2,000 honorary degrees to world leaders, renowned scholars and writers. For the first time, it is considering taking one back — from Robert Mugabe, president of Zimbabwe.
When Mugabe received an honorary doctorate of law from the UMass-Amherst campus in 1986, he was hailed as a humane revolutionary who ended an oppressive white rule to establish an independent Zimbabwe in 1979.
But in the two decades since, Mugabe has been condemned for attacks on dissidents and accused of running a corrupt government that has ruined the economy.
On Wednesday, the student senate of the UMass-Boston campus passed a resolution asking the university to revoke Mugabe's degree, and officials say they are considering doing so.
"Mugabe's actions during the past decade show he's fallen from being a good citizen of the world," said Shauna Murray, a graduate student who helped circulate a petition last month on the Boston campus urging the administration to rescind the degree.
"He has a track record of suppressing basic human rights like free speech and the right to protest, and that doesn't represent what students here stand for," she said.
The issue also has surfaced at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland and Michigan State University, which gave Mugabe honorary degrees in 1984 and 1990, respectively.
Terry Denbow, a Michigan State spokesman, said administrators have received letters requesting that Mugabe's degree be rescinded.
"There have been discussions, but I know of no formal process for rescinding the degree," Denbow said, adding that Michigan State has stopped its study abroad program in Zimbabwe.
Officials at Edinburgh said the issue of Mugabe's degree was under review.
According to UMass policy, honorary degrees are handed out to people "of great accomplishment and high ethical standards." Recipients have included Nelson Mandela, former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, author Toni Morrison and comedian and educator Bill Cosby.
Once lauded as a model for African democracy, Mugabe has tried to crush opposition to his power and has threatened to expel Western envoys for criticizing his government.
Zimbabwe has the world's highest inflation rate and suffers from shortages of food, hard currency, gasoline and essential imports. The country's Roman Catholic bishops said last month that health, education and other public services "have all but disintegrated."
"Mugabe has become a scourge of his people and a scourge of Africa," said Michael Thelwell, a professor in the UMass Afro-American studies department. "He has degenerated as a political leader and as a human being."
Thelwell was one of the professors who encouraged the school to award Mugabe an honorary degree in 1986.
"They gave it to the Robert Mugabe of the past, who was an inspiring and hopeful figure and a humane political leader at the time," he said. "The university has nothing to apologize for in giving a degree to the Robert Mugabe of 20 years ago. And they wouldn't imagine giving an honorary degree to the Robert Mugabe of today."
But Thelwell and others cautioned against revoking the degree just to appease Mugabe's critics.
"The task of intellectuals is to seek the truth, not to be swayed by pressures of the moment," said Bill Strickland, a UMass politics professor. "If they take away the degree, they have to look at all the facts surrounding what is happening in Zimbabwe and not simply blame just one person."
Bill Wright, a spokesman for UMass president Jack Wilson, said university officials and trustees were in "the discussion phase" about what to do with Mugabe's degree.
If they decide they want to withdraw the honor, it isn't likely to happen anytime soon. While the university has a detailed procedure for awarding the degrees, there is no process taking one back.