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UMass students aim to revoke honorary degree for Mugabe

President Robert Mugabe was once known for his opposition to apartheid. President Robert Mugabe was once known for his opposition to apartheid.

Student leaders at the University of Massachusetts at Boston are calling on trustees to revoke an honorary degree given more than 20 years ago to Robert Mugabe, the president of Zimbabwe, who is increasingly scorned worldwide for what many consider a brutal and bloody regime.

The request, which the Undergraduate Student Senate passed unanimously Wednesday, will be presented to trustees at their June meeting. Should the trustees approve the request, it will be the first time the board has revoked an honorary degree.

"I think it casts a bad shadow on the university system to honor someone like that with a degree," said Shauna Murray, a member of the Non-Aligned Club, a student group that advocates against human rights abuses and has circulated a petition to rescind the degree. "I'm shocked the university would honor someone like that."

Calls to the Zimbabwe embassy in Washington, D.C., were not returned yesterday.

The student pleas follow movements at Michigan State University and the University of Edinburgh, in Scotland, where officials are weighing how to take away honorary degrees bestowed upon Mugabe more than a decade ago, when he was revered as an outspoken opponent of apartheid in South Africa and a fighter for racial harmony within his own country.

Mugabe's critics, both within and outside his political party, accuse him of ruling with fear and cronyism and of turning his back on his fight for racial harmony between blacks and whites. They chide him for seizing land from white commercial farmers and giving it to allies, while using the secret police to beat or kill opponents. His tenure also has been marred by a slide from economic prosperity to a country ravaged by hunger and high unemployment.

Bill Wright, a UMass spokesman, said he is not sure whether trustees could approve the request because the board has no established criteria for taking away honorary degrees. Wright, however, stood behind the board's decision to give the degree.

"At the time the award was given, Mr. Mugabe was a freedom fighter in Rhodesia," said Wright, referring to the country's previous name. "That was the rationale and the context for the award."

Mugabe received an honorary doctorate of laws from UMass during a special convocation ceremony on the Amherst campus in October 1986. A program for that ceremony referred to Mugabe, then prime minister, as a champion of human rights.

"Your gentle firmness in the face of anger, and your intellectual approach to matters which inflame the emotions of others, are hallmarks of your quiet integrity," a copy of the program reads. "We salute you for your enduring and effective translation of a moral ethic into a strong, popular voice for freedom."

During his address at that ceremony, Mugabe spoke of the suffering and death of blacks under apartheid in South Africa and advocated for sanctions and other nonviolent means to overthrow the system of forced segregation and racial denigration, according to news accounts at that time. One of Nelson Mandela's daughters, Makaziwe, gave Mugabe his doctoral hood.

"The Mugabe of 1986 was an extraordinary person and a dignified human being," said Michael Thelwell , a UMass-Amherst professor of Afro-American studies who supported giving Mugabe the degree at the time and attended the ceremony. "The university has nothing to apologize for for offering that degree. . . . We are not responsible for how history has unfolded."

Michigan State University also is struggling over how to respond to calls by students and outside groups to take away Mugabe's honorary doctorate of laws, which he received in 1990. Like UMass, the university does not have a policy for revoking honorary degrees and believes standards need to be put in place, said Terry Denbow , a university spokesman. "There will be some meetings on how to respond to the letters as an institution," he said. "I can't speculate what that will lead to."

UMass-Boston students mobilized after a political foe of Mugabe spoke on campus last year. They plan to continue collecting signatures in the next two months to build a stronger case for trustees to revoke the degree. They also are talking to Amherst student leaders to lead the effort there.

"Honorary degree recipients are supposed to be role models for students," said Alex Kulenovic, a student senator who represents the Boston campus on the UMass board of trustees.

"He is far from a person students should emulate."