It is graduation season. The time of year for caps and gowns, for cheers and tears, for joyous celebrations, for poignant class reunions… and, of course, for the awarding of hundreds of honorary degrees.
A friend is planning to be in New Haven later this spring to celebrate his 50th Yale reunion. He tells me that, as his class prepares to celebrate the half century since their 1964 graduation, a classmate is circulating a petition demanding that the University withdraw an honorary degree it awarded in 1996 to a Swiss billionaire whom an Italian court has recently convicted and sentenced to 18 years in prison for criminal activities and negligence resulting in the deaths of 2,000 people from asbestos disease.
The Yale grad’s petition raises a host of questions. Are there legitimate precedents for universities withdrawing such degrees in light of (then) unknown circumstances in a recipient’s past? Surely there are many others who received such honors who have proven to be equally unsavory.