Whom Do We Disgrace with Our Honors?

As the clock ticks closer (if clocks can, in fact, still be said to tick) to Lance Armstrong’s confessional interview with Oprah, it’s worth noting that as the Union Cycliste Internationale used the findings of the United State Anti-Doping Agency to strip Armstrong of all of his cycling titles, including his record seven Tour de France wins, higher education, in its own small way, joined in the condemnation and ostracism of the athlete who made Americans identify cycling as a sport by completely dominating the sport’s signature event as a survivor of testicular cancer. In mid-November of this past year, Tufts University rescinded the honorary doctorate that it had awarded to Armstrong in 2006, with a university spokesperson asserting that, in the opinion of the university’s board of trustees, Armstrong’s “actions as an athlete are inconsistent with the values of the university.”

There are a number of things about this action that are cause for some considerable head-scratching even if it is hard to say that the action in itself was wrong.

There are some broad parallels between Tufts’ action against Armstrong and Penn State’s removal of the Joe Paterno statue outside of the stadium that his long-successful football program literally built. In both instances, the universities were seeking to distance themselves from figures in the world of sport whose reputations for equally uncompromised success and standards had been irreparably damaged. Moreover, in both instances, the dogged pursuit of a singular historical record seems to have become such a driving obsession that the figure was willing to risk, with escalating recklessness, the reputation for forthrightness and extremely high personal principles that had ostensibly made the pursuit itself as singular as the record being pursued.

But there are some very significant differences between the two situations as well. In many ways, Joe Paterno had become the public face of Penn State, the embodiment of its institutional values; therefore, the tarnishing of his seemingly impeccable reputation was a stain not just on the football program or the athletics department but on the institution as a whole. The removal of Paterno’s statue from in front of Beaver Stadium was the equivalent of statues being removed from a temple to transform it into a church or from a church to transform it into a mosque—or of a political leader’s statues being toppled during or immediately after a revolution. In contrast, I am not sure what if any previous connections Lance Armstrong had to Tufts—and that is pretty much the point.

Also, when Paterno’s statue was erected outside of Beaver Stadium, his failure to stop Jerry Sandusky’s serial abuse of young boys was known only to the victims, an inner circle of university administrators, and perhaps a few other people in law enforcement. So for most of the Penn State “community,” the almost simultaneous revelations of both the crimes and the cover-up came as a sudden shock. On the other hand, Tufts awarded the honorary degree to Armstrong as his athletic career was reaching its end and the calls for investigations of his cheating were reaching a crescendo. Someone—many people—at Tufts clearly did not have a figurative ear to the ground. If that scandal hit them like a locomotive, well, they should not have lain down on the tracks wearing earplugs—for almost a decade.

Lastly, at least in terms of these contrasts, I wonder how many Tufts faculty, staff, students, alumni, and other donors were pressing for the rescinding of Armstrong’s honorary doctorate. Something has to have some actual value for its being rescinded to matter. And honorary degrees are typically awarded as publicity stunts to people whose lifetime achievements place them well beyond the need for any university degree or other credential, even a doctorate from a very prestigious institution.

So, ironically, Tufts’ decision to rescind this honorary degree, a gesture which matters only if the honorary degree is actually worth anything, serves only to highlight how worthless the honor and the degree actually are. While ostensibly reinforcing the notion that higher education operates according to some sort of higher values, the action by the Tufts board of trustees actually serves to highlight just how mercenary higher education has become.

If you needed further evidence of what a farce honorary degrees have become, consider this: UNLV just awarded an honorary doctorate to Guy Fieri—yes, Guy Fieri, the host of cable television’s Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. The awarding of this degree coincided with Fieri’s opening of a new restaurant in Times Square, a restaurant that received just about the most scathing review in the history of scathing restaurant reviews from Pete Wells of the New York Times.

Here are several excerpts from the review, which was titled “As Not Seen on TV” and which, as they say, went viral after its initial publication.

Written in the second person, as if addressed directly to Dr. Fieri, the review opens: “GUY FIERI, have you eaten at your new restaurant in Times Square? Have you pulled up one of the 500 seats at Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar and ordered a meal? Did you eat the food? Did it live up to your expectations?

“Did panic grip your soul as you stared into the whirling hypno wheel of the menu, where adjectives and nouns spin in a crazy vortex? When you saw the burger described as ‘Guy’s Pat LaFrieda custom blend, all-natural Creekstone Farm Black Angus beef patty, LTOP (lettuce, tomato, onion + pickle), SMC (super-melty-cheese) and a slathering of Donkey Sauce on garlic-buttered brioche,’ did your mind touch the void for a minute?”

Later, Wells asks: “Why is one of the few things on your menu that can be eaten without fear or regret—a lunch-only sandwich of chopped soy-glazed pork with coleslaw and cucumbers—called a Roasted Pork Bahn Mi, when it resembles that item about as much as you resemble Emily Dickinson?”

It is venomous, beginning to end, but, Dr. Fieri, how can you not appreciate and even enjoy a review of any aspect of our popular culture that manages to include a completely arbitrary reference to Emily Dickinson?

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