Early last week, Brandeis University announced they would be withdrawing Ayaan Hirsi Ali from the pool of honorary degree recipients who will be recognized at the university’s commencement this May. Hirsi Ali, in addition to being a noted activist for women’s rights, is well known for her fierce condemnation of Islam. The decision to rescind her degree came after outrage in both the Brandeis student body and the greater global community over her selection: A petition on Change.org demanding that the Brandeis administration revoke Hirsi Ali’s degree invitation recieved over 6,800 signatures.
Given how strongly Hirsi Ali’s global reputation has been linked to her anti-Islamic comments, we find it surprising that Brandeis administrators were not aware of the controversial nature of her work. Since the presentation of an honorary degree is normally seen as praise of the recipient's entire career, Brandeis should have more thoroughly vetted potential candidates to ensure that all of the recipients’ views were in line the university’s values.
Further, to claim that the issue is one of free speech—as some members of the media have done—is wholly inaccurate. Rather, by reconsidering its offer, Brandeis has made the right decision to not lend the imprimatur of an honorary degree to a controversial scholar who would likely be an uncomfortable presence for Muslim students at the commencement ceremonies. Regardless of her personal struggles and opinions, Hirsi Ali’s tendency to use hateful rhetoric is not a characteristic that should be condoned by any institute of higher education.
It is one thing to condemn certain cultural practices that infringe on women’s rights. Hirsi Ali’s childhood in Somalia—a childhood that was marred by genital mutilation and an attempt at arranged marriage—has given her first-hand experience of the unique difficulties faced by girls in certain parts of the world. But even while acknowledging Hirsi Ali’s experiences, we (and Brandeis) should not disregard her unilateral condemnation of a religion which many people practice peacefully.
Brandeis’s decision was appropriate in light of the circumstances, but we especially commend the fact that Brandeis has encouraged continued dialogue on the subject of Hirsi Ali’s work and of Islam. “In the spirit of free expression that has defined Brandeis University throughout its history,” President Frederick Lawrence of Brandeis noted in his statement, Hirsi Ali would be “welcome” at Brandeis to discuss her work in the future. This decision rightly allows controversial opinions to be aired without necessarily promoting them in the way an honorary degree would have.
To say that rethinking Hirsi Ali’s honorary degree discourages academic discourse could not be further from the truth. In fact, the push to revoke Hirsi Ali’s degree was organized by students at Brandeis, and we commend these students for opening discussion their school’s administrative choices. Hirsi Ali was still able to deliver her speech via a published op-ed on the Wall Street Journal. Brandeis’s decision shows the power of a united student body demanding that their voices be respected. It shows that a forum for free discussion can exist without compromising the values of a college community.