No honorary doctorate for Edward Snowden?


University Square, Rostock

The University of Rostock will not be awarding Edward Snowden an honorary doctorate. This case has been dragging through the courts since May 2014, when the University’s Rector rejected a proposal from the Humanities Faculty, giving the grounds that Snowden had no particular scholarly achievement to his credit. The Rector’s decision has now been confirmed by the judge responsible for public administration in the Land – or country – of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern (Mecklenburg-Pomerania).

The Faculty – known in German as the Philosophische Fakultät – is a broad one with specialisms across education, culture, history, literature and languages, and is the largest in the university. Usually in German universities, the Faculty’s proposals for honorary degrees are uncontroversial, and are accepted without change. In Snowden’s case, the Rector announced that as there was no evidence of an ‘outstanding’ or ‘special’ contribution to knowledge, he was blocking the proposal.

The Education Ministry of the Land, supporting the Rector, argued that the definition of eligibility for honorary doctorates was laid down in the country’s law. The Faculty stood by its original decision, justifying their stance on the grounds of Snowden’s wider social contribution, and took the Rector to the administrative tribunal. It is now considering whether to appeal the tribunal’s judgement, or to nominate the whistleblower once more, this time on grounds of his contribution to knowledge.

From a British perspective, it is interesting to see how these decisions work out in a different system. The German administrative tribunals have the role of a law court, and are expected to deal with conflicts between citizens and public authorities. As the German public universities are legally part of the civil service, the tribunals can become involved in their governance.

This is unusual, certainly by the standards of most English-speaking countries, but I wonder whether it would have been enough to block some of the bizarre honorary degrees awarded by UK universities, usually with had the enthusiastic support of the Vice Chancellor. It would certainly have been hard to argue that Donald Trump and Jimmy Saville  made much of a contribution to knowledge, but British universities honoured them all the same.



Protesting an honorary degree for Judith Butler

The poster for Butler's lecture (copyright

The poster for Butler’s lecture (copyright

Judith Butler is a well-known American scholar and political activist. Her work on gender and sexuality is widely cited, and her book Gender Trouble was something of a best-seller. She has influenced scholars in a number of disciplines beyond feminist and queer theory and cultural studies, and is well known in educational studies. Her work on the gendered body has been taken as a sharp tool for understanding educational identities and purposes. Researchers in adult learning citing her work include Barbara Merrill, Valerie-Lee Chapman and André Grace.

Given Butler’s fame and standing, I was slightly surprised to discover that the Anglophone media had ignored the kerfuffle over her recent honorary doctorate. The University of Freiburg/Fribourg awarded Butler her degree on the recommendation of its philosophy department, and the Berkeley scholar duly collected her award. But she did so amidst a storm of fury from conservative Catholics, objecting to her views on family life and gender construction.

Butler’s formal lecture (on non-violence) was given with security guards at the doors, while some thirty Catholics audibly protested outside with hymns and candles. The university’s professor of dogmatic theology (let me know if you come up with a better translation of ‘Professor für dogmatische Theologie’) announced that he disapproved of the honorary degree and was boycotting the lecture.

This was relatively a small and generally polite protest. The lecture hall was full, and the only anger was apparently shown by latecomers who were refused entry. An alternative event, with mulled wine and bible readings, attracted a negligible audience. Meanwhile, the university’s rector received dozens of angry emails, and the local Bishop was urged to withhold his usual mass during the University’s ‘Dies academicus’.

Butler is, of course, no stranger to controversy. She has been particularly criticised for her views on Israel and once won fourth prize in a competition for bad writing. I haven’t heard of religious fundamentalists taking any particular exception to her previously, though I can see that her views on the social construction of gender might offend those who believe that the two genders were made by God. So I found it rather odd that the national broadcaster quoted Barbara Hallensleben, professor of theology at Freiburg/Fribourg, as saying that Butler’s view of gender was consistent with creationism.

Given that the controversy passed off safely, I would imagine that Butler rather relished the whole experience. It’s only slightly surprising that it wasn’t picked up by at least some specialist journalists in the Anglophone media; I only came across the episode because I was working in Hamburg and saw it reported very briefly in the press. Academic fame can impress insiders like me, for better or for worse, but out there it remains a very small niche.