BEIRUT: Several dozen people disrupted the Master’s graduation ceremony at AUB Friday evening to protest against the awarding of an honorary degree to Donna Shalala due to her support for engagement with Israel.
Shalala, president of the University of Miami in Florida and a former U.S. secretary of health, has three honorary degrees from universities in Israel, and does not support a cultural boycott of the country.
Around 40 protesters heckled Shalala as she began her speech of thanks, shouting “boycott Israel.” Some held a large banner that read “Boycott Zionist Shalala.”
Some other audience members, including graduates, ushers and parents, joined in the heckling, prompting Shalala to respond, “Let us welcome this demonstration of academic freedom.”
In her keynote address later, Shalala, born in the U.S. to Lebanese parents, spoke of volunteer work that she carried out with UNRWA at a Palestinian refugee camp in southern Lebanon.
“Fifty years ago, my experience with Palestinians in the refugee camp seared me forever as an advocate for the people of Palestine and their statehood.”
Before the ceremony, in which 493 students graduated, some protesters handed out flyers that summarized a letter circulated earlier in the week after the announcement about honorary degree recipients was made.
A former AUB student handing out flyers said: “I don’t want my university to honor someone who is on a normalization quest. Beirut has a history of resisting Zionism. There is no legal or moral reason to honor her.”
Last year, former World Bank president James Wolfensohn pulled out of attending a ceremony where he was scheduled to receive an honorary doctorate and deliver the keynote address following a similar campaign by students and faculty members over his links with Israel.
The campaign led to the university administration vowing to be more transparent with the nomination process for honorary degrees in the future.
One of the organizers of the campaign this year and a current student at AUB, Samar Ghanem, said that honoring Shalala was a “big blow” after last year.
“We were promised more transparency this year, and we were told they would release the names of the recipients two weeks before the ceremony,” she said.
Honorary doctorates were also awarded to Islamic scholar Wadad Kadi, and Munib Masri, a businessman turned public official.