St. John Fisher College has set the precedent that as an institution, it will not tolerate destructive or offensive behavior. Whether it be suspending a cheerleading squad for racist comments in 2019, or when within days the school had released in-depth statements about students who desecrated a Frederick Douglas statue in 2018.
On Jan.6, 2021, riots took place at the capitol building while the Senate was in session counting electoral votes. Many felt this riot was partially the result of Rudy Giuliani and his inflammatory words calling for “trial by combat.”
In 2015, Fisher awarded Rudy Giuliani — former Mayor of New York City and lawyer and close confidant of Donald Trump — an honorary doctoral degree after he was invited to speak at the college. Shortly after the Capitol riots, a petition was started stating that Giuliani’s “statements and actions related to the 2020 United States Presidential election, its aftermath, and the ongoing COVID epidemic do not reflect the mission and values of this institution.”
Political Science professor Dr. James Bowers refers to his comments as “destructive to democracy.” However, the Fisher community is still waiting for any real response from the school.
After community outcry, Fisher’s Board of Trustees did release a statement over a month ago saying that they would meet to discuss a potential rescinding of the honorary degree. Similar efforts across the country are happening as well.
According to Forbes, Middlebury College, a liberal arts school in Vermont, took away the honorary degree it awarded Giuliani in 2005. The board of trustees at Lehigh University, a small school in Pennsylvania, voted to rescind the honorary degree it awarded to Trump in 1988. The board of trustees for Wagner University, a private school located in Staten Island, New York, followed suit, voting to strip Trump of the honorary degree it awarded the president in 2004.
On February 19, a letter was submitted to Diana Nole and Thomas Bowles, the Chair and Vice Chair of the Board of Trustees voicing strong support for rescinding. This letter was signed by 15 prior class and Student Government Association (SGA) presidents, ranging from 2003 to 2020. The current SGA senate made the unanimous decision to not be included on the letter.
Joseph Smith, ‘12 alumnus and the spearhead of the letter, calls the silence of the current SGA “disheartening.” He said he’s “concerned that organizations on campus now aren’t taking this seriously.”
However, current SGA president Michael Lilholt says SGA is focused on helping the campus other ways right now, like building a stronger on-campus presence and a closer relationship with administration so that in the future they can have a seat at the table for topics like this one. As of now, Lilholt encourages any student concerned to let a senator know, or attend the weekly meetings which take place at Skalny 141 at 8 p.m. each Tuesday.
The letter included statements on how alumni feel that in their time on campus they worked to advance the schools mission, and “expect the College to demonstrate the same conviction… Those who do not reflect the values and the mission of the institution should no longer be entitled to hold the honorary degrees granted to them.”
In the letter, Giuliani’s words and role in the capitol riot are referred to as “antithetical to everything St. John Fisher College espouses.” The letter expresses concern that “his continued relationship with the College risks permanent damage to the College’s reputation.”
“If the board does not act to rescind, their failure to rescind is tacit complicity with the types of things Giulani said,” Bowers said. He goes as far as to call Giuliani “unhinged” and feels “whatever motivation we had for giving him the degree has evaporated.”
Smith recalls media buzz in 2015 when Giuliani originally received the honorary degree, but at that point in time he supported him speaking and actually came to watch. Smith now feels that Giuliani’s recent actions “transcend politics”.
“This is not about politics or ‘cancel culture’, but accountability for your actions and standing up for the values that institutions and individuals have.” He refers to Giuliani’s actions as “attacking the very cornerstone of our democracy” and feels that bestowing him with the highest degree a college can give is not justified.
Bowers was the one who introduced Giuliani with his honorary doctorate in 2015. Now, he supports both the letter and the original petition as both a personal act of redemption and an apology for having been a part of the celebration of Giuliani.
Bowers refers to Giuliani in 2015 as “inappropriate and offensive but not dangerous.” Now Bowers believes Giuliani has joined “the segment of our political society that is dangerous to our democracy” and has surpassed the “sensitivities of free speech.” Bowers urges Fisher to be on the “right side of history… Any action short of revoking Mr. Giuliani’s honorary degree, is in itself insulting.”
The Board of Trustees continues to say that they plan on discussing the topic at their next meeting, which will be held on March 12. The letter hopes that the Board meets and reaches a decision quickly, as Smith believes that Fisher has an opportunity to lead right now and it should aim to be a “model for colleges, students, alumni, and the community.”