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By Canton Winer

From USA Today | Original Article

CIA Director John Brennan takes questions from reporters during a press conference art CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., on Dec. 11, 2014. (Photo: Jim Watson, AFP/Getty Images)

CIA Director John Brennan takes questions from reporters during a press conference art CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., on Dec. 11, 2014.
(Photo: Jim Watson, AFP/Getty Images)

A new, faculty-initiated petition is requesting that Fordham University revoke its honorary degree to John Brennan, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Calling Brennan’s honorary degree “indefensible,” the petition calls upon Fordham University to revoke the degree, citing what the petitioners call his defense and support of torture.

The petition also calls for “promoting reflection within the Fordham community on how our university can better live up to the values espoused in its mission statement… [and for] initiating a public dialogue on how, in the wake of the human rights violations committed by our government, we can advance the cause of restorative justice.”

Brennan, who graduated from Fordham in 1977, was the university’s commencement speaker in 2012. At the time, Brennan was a U.S. Homeland Security Advisor.

This is not Brennan’s first brush with protest. He withdrew his name from consideration for CIA Director in 2008 after activists questioned his “ambiguous and inconsistent views” regarding the CIA’s use of torture. Following the resignation of then-CIA Director General Petraeus, President Obama nominated Brennan for the position in January 2013 and Brennan was approved by the Senate two months later.

Even in 2012, the decision to invite Brennan as commencement speaker sparked controversy on campus. Two students launched a petition stating that, “By choosing John Brennan as the speaker for its 2012 commencement ceremonies, Fordham University is implicitly endorsing the ‘War on Terror,’ the use of rendition, the CIA’s heinous drone campaign and the subversion of the rule of law in America, including the assassination of its own citizens.”

This latest petition was written by Fordham Faculty Against Torture, a group of seven faculty members that was formed in December 2014 following the release of a report from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence regarding the use of torture. According to group members, over 100 faculty members have signed the petition.

Glenn Hendler, chair of Fordham English department and member of Fordham Faculty Against Torture, credits Orlando Rodríguez with initiating the group. Rodríguez, whose son died in the attacks on the World Trade Center, is a professor in Fordham’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology .

“Not long after the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s report on torture came out, Professor Rodriguez sent out an e-mail to some of us who had opposed the honorary degree in 2012, lamenting the fact that Fordham had made this error back then,” Hendler said via e-mail. “There was some e-mail discussion of how we might respond, and how distressing it was that Fordham had given an honor to a man who was not only implicated in the act of torture, but who also continued to defend the actions of the government and refused to rule out torture in the future.”

Hendler says that the discussion turned to what it would take to get Fordham to revoke Brennan’s honorary degree. The idea gathered momentum, and eventually seven professors began a new e-mail discussion to write the petition, plan its distribution and dub the newly-founded group “Fordham Faculty Against Torture.”

By awarding Brennan an honorary degree, Hendler suggests that Fordham had violated its Jesuit, Catholic mission.

“By granting this honorary degree, Fordham has implicated itself in the practice and justification of torture–a practice that is in Catholic doctrine and nearly every other religious and ethical system considered an absolute evil in all circumstances,” Hendler says. “I can imagine no way of countering this implication better than revoking the honorary degree and publicly expressing regret that it was ever given.”

Revoking the degree, however, is merely the first step in a process of “restorative justice,” according to Hendler.

“The first step in a restorative justice process has to be the acknowledgment that an injustice has taken place,” Hendler says. “Revoking the degree would be an acknowledgment of that injustice.”

On January 22, members of Fordham Faculty Against Torture  met privately with Fordham University President Rev. Joseph M. McShane, S.J., and other high-level administrators to discuss their petition. In a now-public letter sent on Jan. 29, the seven members of Fordham Faculty Against Torture suggest that Fordham administrators urged the faculty to keep their petition private, at least temporarily.

Hendler says he is unsurprised that the administration did not immediately bend to the group’s request to revoke Brennan’s degree.

“Such an action would be very unusual and quite serious, so I never expected that we would simply ask and President McShane would agree,” Hendler says.

Spurning the administration’s request that Fordham Faculty Against Torture not go forward with the petition, the group began to slowly circulate the petition, which quickly gathered over 200 signatures, among Fordham faculty and students.

“That kind of serious action (revoking an honorary degree) requires extensive discussion within the Fordham community,” Hendler continued. “And so I also hope the circulation of the petition will provoke that discussion. In the course of that discussion, I hope there will be some significant rethinking of both the purpose of granting honorary degrees and the process by which decisions are made about how to decide who should receive them.”

Jeanne Flavin, a professor of sociology and also a member of Fordham Faculty Against Torture, adds that it was always the groups intention to go public with the petition.

“We are committed to transparency and have always intended for the public to be able to see the petition,” Flavin said via e-mail. “We did begin our petition drive with a ‘quiet’ phase of securing faculty signatures on an individual and small group basis. We wanted to establish support for our effort among our faculty before asking that of our students and alumni. Personally, I also felt that we faculty should have some ‘skin in the game’ rather than leave students and others to assume the greatest share of the responsibility and risk.”

As a result, students are beginning to see the petition in their inboxes and on Facebook.

“Within the past few weeks I’ve gotten emails from a variety of faculty members asking me to sign the petition and requesting that I share it in my social network,” says senior Rachel Dougherty.

Hendler says he is optimistic that the petition will gain traction as students become involved.

“The fact that 100 students have signed the petition in just about one day makes me very optimistic that students will carry this forward more effectively than seven faculty members ever could.”

Many students have voiced their support for the petition.

“I believe that Fordham is a university that advocates for the consideration of human dignity in all actions,” says Anisah Assim, a junior at Fordham. “Torture is a vile undermining of that dignity.I cannot reconcile torture and with the values of Fordham so I cannot reconcile awarding an honorary degree to an individual that has accepted and obscured torture.”

“I believe that allowing John Brennan to retain his honorary degree is inconsistent with Fordham’s values,” Assim continues. “It is simplistic to say, but an honorary degree implies that we as a university believe that the recipient is deserving of special honor. As a student of Fordham university, I do not believe that John Brennan is deserving of special honor in light of his past actions.”

Junior Nick Sawicki agrees.

“Since March, 2013, the beginning of Mr. Brennan’s tenure as Director, the CIA has hacked computers relating to the Senate Intelligence Agency, provided false testimony before Congressional and Department of Justice officials, and circumvented the authority of its own Inspector General.” Sawicki says. “As a University, enlightened in the Humanitarian tradition, we cannot honor an individual who’s either gross ignorance or willful collusion has purposefully damaged the lives of so many. ”

Senior David Birkdale says he signed the petition.

“The Fordham education should show students the importance of following their consciences, and this has done the exact opposite of that.” Birkdale says.

Senior Kaitlyn Flanagan suggests that awarding Brennan an honorary degree actually makes the university complicit in Brennan’s perceived injustices.

“For Fordham to award him an honorary diploma is to become complicit with the war crimes and human rights violations committed by our government.”

Bob Howe, Fordham’s senior director of communications, says that the university cannot issue any statement at this time.

“The Fordham Board of Trustees has been advised that a petition is being circulated and is awaiting its delivery,” Howe says.

Regardless of how Fordham administration responds, Flavin says that the campaign will move forward.

“Much of what we seek with this campaign is not solely in the hands of the Fordham administration,” Flavin says.  “We all share a responsibility for the pursuit of social justice, in all its forms, and for all people.”

Canton Winer is a student at Fordham University, a former Collegiate Correspondent and current Contributing Writer.
 
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