Saturday, 2:15 PM
By Peter Schworm, Globe Staff
The University of Massachusetts Board of Trustees this morning revoked an honorary degree awarded to President Robert Mugabe, the Zimbabwe dictator whose brutal crackdown against political opponents and systematic human rights abuses have made him an international pariah.
The board unanimously rescinded the law degree, awarded at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 1986, at the urging of UMass president Jack Wilson, who said Mugabe's corrupt, repressive regime was "antithetical to the values and beliefs of the University of Massachusetts." It is the first time the board has revoked an honorary degree.
"Rescinding an honorary degree is a step to be taken in only the rarest and most grievous of circumstances,” said Robert J. Manning, chairman of the UMass Board of Trustees, which met this morning at UMass-Lowell. "After studying this issue for more than a year, the University of Massachusetts trustees have decided that Robert Mugabe’s performance and policies in Zimbabwe are so egregious as to warrant this ultimate expression of disapproval."
“We have decided to break the link between Robert Mugabe’s name and this university’s own good name,” Manning added.
Wilson added that “Robert Mugabe’s transgressions have led the world community to condemn his government’s assault on human rights and on the rule of law."
A spokesman for Machivenyika Mapuranga, the Zimbabwean ambassador to the United States, said the revoked degree was irrelevant.
"They [the honorary degrees] don't have any meaning to him at all," the spokesman said. "I mean, come on. I don't think he even remembers it."
In 1986, UMass awarded Mugabe an honorary law degree during a special convocation at the school's Amherst campus. UMass chancellor Joseph Duffey said at the time that Mugabe had rebuilt Zimbabwe's economy and "laid the foundation for racial harmony between blacks and whites."
A program for that ceremony referred to Mugabe as a champion of human rights.During his address, Mugabe spoke of the suffering of blacks under apartheid in South Africa, and one of Nelson Mandela's daughters gave Mugabe his doctoral hood.
The board's action today followed growing calls inside and outside Massachusetts to strip Mugabe, who was widely seen as a liberator from oppressive colonial and white rule when he came to power in 1980, of the honor.
State Representative Kevin J. Murphy, the House chairman of the Joint Committee on Higher Education, had urged UMass to take the step in light of escalating state-sponsored violence in Zimbabwe. In a May 9 letter to Wilson, Murphy denounced Mugabe as "an affliction on the people of Zimbabwe."
Murphy, addressing the board today, said "the promise we saw in 1986 was false."
"It is now explicit and clear that we must take further action to protect the reputation of our university as a responsible global citizen," he said. "For a man who has habitually violated the democratic and natural rights of his people, the only precedent the board needs to take such action is the odium of the character of Mr. Mugabe and his regime."
In recent days, Mugabe has intensified a campaign against political opponents in an effort to retain power. Authorities arrested Tendai Biti, a senior official of the main opposition party, today and briefly detained opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who will face Mugabe in a runoff election scheduled for June 27.
Mugabe, 84, has also threatened to expel the US ambassador for providing advice to Tsvangirai, who returned to Zimbabwe last month after six weeks abroad.
On Wednesday, authorities seized a truck loaded with 20 tons of American food aid for children and ordered that it be handed out to Mugabe supporters at a political rally, according to wire service reports.
UMass is not the first institution to act against Mugabe. Last year, the University of Edinburgh in Scotland rescinded an honorary degree it had awarded Mugabe.
Students at Michigan State University, which awarded Mugabe a degree in 1990, have unsuccessfully pressed officials at that school to do the same.
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