WMU among earliest schools to award Mandela honorary degree

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Photo of Nelson Mandela.

Nelson Mandela

KALAMAZOO—Twenty-five years ago, in June 1988 when Nelson Mandela was still imprisoned at Robben Island in South Africa, Western Michigan University became one of the first universities in the United States to award an honorary degree to the human rights icon.

Then President Diether H. Haenicke brought the degree resolution to WMU's Board of Trustees in June 1988. With the board's approval, an honorary doctor of humanities was awarded to Mandela in absentia during the June 25 commencement ceremonies. The degree was awarded "in recognition of Mandela's humanitarian contributions and self-sacrifice for the advancement of human rights everywhere."

WMU faculty member Don Cooney, social work, had an instrumental role in encouraging the University's divestment in South Africa and the awarding of Mandela's honorary degree. Listen to a recent WMUK-FM interview with Cooney about the protests against apartheid and meeting Nelson Mandela in 1990 here.

'An international symbol of human rights'

With the federal government and much of the U.S. business community allied, at the time, with the South African government that had imprisoned Mandela, the decision was controversial. Earlier that year, a faculty-student group proposed an honorary degree for Mandela to WMU's Honorary Degree Committee. That committee forwarded the proposal on without making any recommendation.

In the resolution proposed, Haenicke identified Mandela as "the leading opponent of the apartheid system of racial segregation in his homeland" and indicated that Mandela had "become an international symbol of human rights." Haenicke's resolution also said, "Mandela, with the love and understanding of his family, has steadfastly placed the basic humanitarian values of others above his own personal freedom. His personal struggle has raised the fundamental concern for individual freedom."

Mandela was released from prison in 1990 and went on to become South Africa's first black president. He died Dec. 5 at the age of 95. Today, the honorary degree from WMU is one of more than 50 awarded to the Nobel Laureate. In 1988, it was one of only three from U.S. universities.

"President Haenicke and the University community were right and perceptive in recognizing Mandela back in 1988," says WMU President John M. Dunn. "Today, we join with the world in once again paying tribute to an individual whose life has been an inspiration and a beacon of hope for all who believe in a society in which all of humanity counts."