FACULTY SNUB McSHANE! Profs go against prez, want to revoke degree of ‘torturing’ alum

Screen Shot 2015-02-10 at 4.46.42 PMUpdated: Feb. 10 at 7:41 p.m.

Hear them roar!

Fordham Faculty Against Torture, a group of seven professors spanning a wide range of departments and disciplines, has circulated an internal petition calling on the Board of Trustees to revoke the 2012 honorary degree awarded to CIA Director John Brennan, FCRH ’77, sources told Fordham Daily.

Brennan was awarded the degree when he delivered the university’s commencement address amid strong criticism from students and faculty for Brennan’s involvement in torture and drone strikes. 

At the time, students created a petition condemning Brennan’s honor, distributed orange ribbons to be worn over graduation gowns and turned their backs to Brennan as he addressed the graduating class. One woman even stormed the Keating Steps, but was stopped by security before she reached him.

David Myers, a history professor and a member of Fordham Faculty Against Torture, told Fordham Daily that the petition had 200 signatures as of Tuesday night — more than 100 from full-time faculty members.

He said the petition was opened up this week to allow for students and alumni to sign.

“Awarded over the protests of both faculty and students, the degree was problematic at the time [in 2012],” Myers wrote in an email to faculty, requesting their support. “In light of the recently released Senate Intelligence Committee report on torture and Mr. Brennan’s response, it is now indefensible.”

The Senate report, which was made public in December, details interrogation techniques employed by the CIA in the years after 9/11 that were more brutal than the agency had communicated to Congress and the White House. Brennan — one of President Obama’s closest advisors — challenged the report and strongly defended the actions of the CIA, calling agents “patriots.”

Fordham Faculty Against Torture confronted Rev. Joseph M. McShane, S.J., president of the university, in a back-door meeting last month, according to text of the petition. During the meeting, the group explained their plan to release a petition and called on Fordham to host a campus dialogue about the university’s relationship to Brennan and torture at large.

McShane said he would be able to bring Brennan to campus for a dialogue — but only if the group delayed distributing the petition until after Brennan’s visit.

The faculty turned their noses up at the offer and began distributing the petition.

“After considerable reflection, we concluded that the kind of dialog we seek would not be enhanced by Mr. Brennan’s presence,” the group explained in the petition. “We do not see how Mr. Brennan could contribute to either the academic or the ethical side of our project.”

School spokesman Bob Howe said the Board of Trustees will review the petition when it is sent to them. He declined to comment further.

“We are hopeful but not delusional about the probabilities,” Myers told Fordham Daily, referencing the outcome of the petition.

The 2012 honorary degree is not the only award Fordham has bestowed on Brennan, who is said to be a personal friend of McShane.

Fordham’s president was in Washington, DC in September to bestow Brennan with the Brien McMahon Award for Distinguished Public Service.

“[Jesuits] opened my mind to the wonders of the world beyond our borders and encouraged me to think deeply about what I believe, as well as why I believe it,” Brennan said during the ceremony. “True understanding only comes from engaging with the world.”

Full text of the petition:

Dear President McShane,

Thank you for meeting with us last week and sharing your views on our petition.  We appreciate the seriousness with which you are treating our concerns.  Please convey our thanks to the other participants in the meeting: Stephen Freedman (cc:ed here), Tom Dunne, and Bob Howe.

As you know, our petition calls upon the university to revoke Mr. Brennan’s honorary degree and to initiate public dialog on torture and human rights.  At the meeting, you suggested separating the question of Mr. Brennan’s degree from the question of dialog, and you advocated treating the question of dialog first.  Mr. Brennan is eager to return to Fordham, you informed us, and you could probably bring him to campus, so long as we agreed to withhold the petition until after his visit.

After considerable reflection, we concluded that the kind of dialog we seek would not be enhanced by Mr. Brennan’s presence.  In light of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report, we plan to initiate an extensive academic conversation on such matters as the history of torture, the psychology of torture, the sociology of torture, the politics of torture, theological views on torture, and cultural representations of torture.  Moreover, in keeping with the university’s mission to assist in “the promotion of justice [and] the protection of human rights,” we plan to foster an extended ethical discussion of how to advance the cause of restorative justice in the wake of the human rights violations committed by our government.  We do not see how Mr. Brennan could contribute to either the academic or the ethical side of our project.  Nevertheless, if you would like to invite Mr. Brennan, we would be happy to include him in our programming as part of a process of restorative justice aimed at truth and reconciliation.  We would simply ask that your office provide the resources necessary for us to organize the event on a scale and with a structure befitting the significance of the occasion.  

At the meeting, Dr. Freedman suggested that the petition would obstruct academic dialog.  We respectfully disagree.  In our view, it will facilitate academic dialog.  At its core, the academic enterprise is about the pursuit of truth, and the pursuit of truth requires us to call things by their proper names.  Among its many ill effects, the CIA’s torture program separated things from their proper names.  Thus torture has been euphemized as “enhanced interrogation.”  State-sponsored kidnapping has been mystified as “extraordinary rendition.”  And an advocate of abusing human rights has been honored as a “Doctor of Humane Letters.”  When things are not called by their proper names, clear reasoning becomes impossible; right and wrong become hopelessly confused, and the pursuit of truth is doomed to fail.  Our petition aims in part to remedy this situation by restoring things to their proper names and clearing a path for fruitful academic inquiry.

We also view the petition as an ethical first step toward restorative justice.  Only by acknowledging the fact that harm has been done can a community begin to repair its moral fabric.  Only by acknowledging the fact that our country has erred in pursuing and defending practices condemned by the world community can the United States restore its leadership as a proponent of human rights.  Only by acknowledging the fact that our university erred in awarding an honorary degree to an advocate of torture can Fordham restore its moral integrity.  

For these reasons, we plan to move forward with our petition and to begin organizing a series of events on torture, human rights, and restorative justice for this spring and the 2015-16 academic year.  These events will play a key role in our classes, enrich our students’ education, and encourage morally responsible conversations on our campus.  We would welcome your support of our efforts and invite you to participate in them.

At the close of the meeting, you enjoined us to resist the belief that “error has no rights.”  This admonition puzzled many of us.  We ask that you consider, as we do, that your exhortation to remember the rights of others may be better directed toward Mr. Brennan, a man complicit with the systematic torture of other human beings–a fact we would all do well to remember as we move forward with our endeavors.  

Thank you once again for your attention to these serious matters and your willingness to discuss them with us.  We wish you and the university well and look forward to working together in the future.


Dr. Orlando Rodriguez, Professor, Department of Sociology and Anthropology
Dr. Jeanne Flavin, Professor, Department of Sociology and Anthropology?
Dr. Jeannine Hill Fletcher, Professor, Department of Theology
Dr. Glenn Hendler, Associate Professor and Chair, Department of English
Dr. Bradford Hinze, Professor, Department of Theology
Dr. James Kim, Assistant Professor, Department of English
Dr. David Myers, Professor, Department of History