Rescinding an honorary degree can send a message

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After Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s inaction on the persecution and displacement of the Rohingya people, many of her awards and honours have been revoked across the world. 

Despite her history advocating for democracy and human rights, there needs to be a line drawn between someone’s past achievements and present behavior when it comes to keeping an honorary degree. 

Currently, Suu Kyi still holds an honorary Doctorate of Law at Queen’s. 

Queen’s University has been giving out honorary degrees for more than 100 years and in that time, it has never rescinded one from a recipient. 

Whether deliberate or through a lack of policy, inaction still sends a message.

Honorary degrees have always been symbolic. They send the message that the university believes the recipient is emblematic of their institution’s values. When they can be taken away, it sends the message that the university no longer condones certain behaviours. 

When asked about rescinding her degree, Principal Woolf’s official statement said the situation in Myanmar is still unfolding and as a result the decision can’t be made lightly. 

There’s something to be said for not rescinding a degree in the heat of the moment. If the degree is taken away in Suu Kyi’s case, it will be a first for Queen’s and will set a precedent for the future. As a result, deciding hastily before the facts are known could do more harm than good. 

That being said, the University should be able to rescind an honorary degree in enough time for that decision to have an impact. Waiting until the situation is no longer topical means rescinding the degree won’t carry much weight. 

Whether it rescinds the degree or not, Queen’s is making a political and social statement either way. Aung San Suu Kyi isn’t likely concerned about the status of her honorary degree a half a world away. Although it doesn’t really impact her, it can influence others. An honorary degree sends a message internationally and to the Queen’s community about what we tolerate. 

The UN has recognized the current events in Myanmar as a “textbook case of ethnic cleansing.” Why can’t Queen’s? 

 

— Journal Editorial Board

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