Black On Campus
Higher Education and the African American Experience

Northwestern Black Alumni Galvanized by Jeremiah Wright Incident

June 20th, 2008 by Ajuan Mance

2000-02 Northwestern Alumni Association president Ava Harth Youngblood, with Kellogg School of Business Alums Debra Parker and Gwen Gilbert Cohen.


It is only within the last 30 years that most majority white universities have begun to address issues of anti-Black racism on their campuses and in their admissions processes. When it comes to Black people and U.S. higher education, the relationship is long and turbulent; and so it would behoove a majority white university such as Northwestern to at least engage in some sort of open process of consultation with Black students, faculty, and alumni before decideding to backpedal on something as significant as an honorary degree offered to a Black public figure.

Diverse Issues in Higher Education reports that Northwestern University Black alumni, spurred on by the seemingly unilateral decision by University President Harvey Bienen to rescind his offer of an honorary degree to Rev. Jeremiah Wright, have started an online petition demanding that their alma mater make dramatic changes in how they address the interests and needs of Black members of the campus community. Diverse Issues reporter Margaret Kamara explains:

Northwestern University’s decision to rescind an invitation to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright to receive an honorary degree was the last straw for many Black alumni, who have started an online petition that calls for changes to how the university treats Black students and the Black community, including an investigation into the decrease in Black student enrollment.



Although the petition, with nearly 1,500 signatures as of Thursday, asks the administration to award Wright the honorary degree as originally planned at the university’s commencement Friday, the petition really is about correcting injustices, says Ce Cole Dillon, president of Northwestern’s Black Alumni Association and member of the university’s Alumni Association Board of Directors. In addition to the decreasing Black enrollment Blacks made up 9.6 percent of the undergraduate student body in 1976 compared to 5.5 percent in 2005 they say the university is acting insensitive and rules aren’t applied consistently when it comes to Blacks.



Alumni decry the decision to withdraw the university’s offer of an honorary Doctorate of Sacred Theology degree to Wright as unilateral, since it was not discussed in a review committee. During the past few months, parts of Wright’s controversial sermons were aired as people questioned the Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama’s past and his relationship with Wright.

In addition to the Wright decision and decreasing Black student enrollment, the petition also criticizes the decision to bypass a Black professor for a permanent dean position when that professor had served on an interim basis in that position and was a finalist in the search.

In an earlier blog post on this topic I suggested that the University’s decision to withdraw their offer of an honorary degree from the Rev. Wright was indefensible, given their recent history of granting honorary doctorates to public figures who have made incendiary remarks about marginalized groups. This choice is even more questionable given the University’s choice as a replacement for Rev. Wright. Reporter Kamara elaborates:

Northwestern’s president Henry Bienen announced that Richard M. Daley, mayor of Chicago, would be the speaker at the university’s commencement and would receive an honorary doctor of law degree.


Though Daley is a household name in Chicago, in the Black community his name brings up a painful memory. When Daley was Cook County state’s attorney in the 1980s, he allegedly failed to investigate allegations that some Chicago police tortured Black men into confessing crimes they did not commit. In January, the city approved a nearly $20 million settlement with four former death row inmates who alleged a former police commander and others tortured them. A federal probe is underway into allegations that police tortured more than 100 people over a 20-year period.


“When the university made those decisions they were not applying the same standards all across the board,” says Dillon. “This is where the lens of racism comes in. Rev. Wright is accused of committing a crime of being unpatriotic,” while Daley is accused of failing to act when learning that Black men were subject to real criminal offenses.

Apparently statements that can be interpreted as unpatriotic are considered a greater threat to Northwestern’s reputation than actions and policies that are patently racist. I doubt, however, that this hierarchy of values is expressed anyone in the University’s minority recruitment materials.


Posted by Ajuan Mance

Posted in African Americans, Black Alumni, College Presidents, Higher Education, honorary degrees, Northwestern University, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Uncategorized

2 Responses

  1. Carolyn (sparky)

    Wow, glad you posted this. The police brutality is really out of control in this city, as is the corruption, etc. This fall, they disbanded the special unit that deals with gangs and drugs on the south side because they were arresting people then returning to their homes and robbing them (often with wife and children present), and then one of the ring leader cops put a hit out on another cop that was testifying. They have been filmed shaking down nightclubs and bars, beating up bartenders and even patrons who won’t served their drunk asses or beat them at pool(!), the list goes on and on. Regarding Wright, the papers didn’t really quote the campus reaction; the presence of Daley caused graduates to protest, but mostly because he was not as “famous” as other potential speakers. The insult to the black community of replacing one with the other (or canceling one and inviting the other) didn’t dawn on me til this article, but mainly because it seemed in support of Obama. The church Wright was preacher of here is a really big deal, quite an institution…still learning about it from the native-born Chicagoans…will keep you posted. But what did you think about Phleger (sp?), the white priest who ‘mocked’ on Clinton?

  2. Tigress

    Very interesting bit of information. So glad you posted this and that I had the opportunity to read it.