UNIVERSITY OF Washington officials are expecting protests over its commencement speaker this year—former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
Almost any former secretary of state would be likely to draw protesters. But Albright—who served eight years in the Clinton administration, first as U.S. representative to the United Nations, then heading U.S. foreign policy—is particularly loathed by progressive activists for her advocacy of U.S.- led economic sanctions against Iraq.
Her role was most famously summed up by an exchange in a 1996 interview on 60 Minutes. Reporter Leslie Stahl, citing a then-recent U.N. report that stated the sanctions had resulted in the deaths of at least 500,000 Iraqi children, asked Albright whether that was an acceptable price to pay; Albright replied, “We think it’s worth it.”
On Saturday, June 15, Albright will address those assembled for the commencement ceremonies and receive an honorary degree from the UW. Until recently, the university had not given any honorary degrees since 1921. The first such degree since was awarded in April to Nobel Peace Prize- winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The second will go to Albright.
Norm Arkans, UW’s associate vice president for university relations, expects more honorary doctorates in the future.
Arkans also chaired the committee of faculty, administrators, and students that recommended Albright as commencement speaker. According to Arkans, once a short list is determined, the final speaker selection is largely because of circumstance. “[It’s] a process of matching who’s available on that day of your commencement. You have to sort of make phone calls and mix and match—who’s available, who’s doing commencement speeches that year, who costs too much.”
Albright’s price is right; she has declined to receive any fees for her UW appearance. “Secretary Albright has been on the screen of the committee [that chooses commencement speakers] for the past two years,” Arkans says. “She was unavailable in past years but was available this year.”