ARAB STATES: Division over doctorates for despots

Universities are divided over whether honorary degrees and titles awarded to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and other Arab rulers or their families should be withdrawn in response to violent resistance to popular uprisings calling for democratic change.

Two universities have between them withdrawn an emeritus professorship and a doctorate, while others say their degrees were awarded for scientific, not political, reasons.

In addition, a lawsuit has been filed demanding the withdrawal of the honorary doctorate that was awarded to Egypt's former First Lady Suzanne Thabet, wife of ousted president Hosni Mubarak.

On 4 April Gaddafi, the 68-year-old Libyan leader who has been in power since 1969, was removed from a list of emeritus professors at the Belarusian State University of Informatics and Radioelectronics. This was apparently in response to his bloody acts against pro-democracy protesters.

As the university press service reported, the title of emeritus professor was granted to Gaddafi "for significant contribution [to the] development of education and science and for strengthening cooperation between higher educational institutions of the Republic of Belarus and the Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya".

The council of Khartoum University, at a meeting on 7 March, decided to withdraw an honorary doctorate from Gaddafi, awarded in 1996.

But the Belgrade-based private Megatrend University defended its decision to award Gaddafi a doctorate four years ago. "There is not a single reason for the university to withdraw its decision about the honorary doctorate," Mica Jovanovic, a dean at the university, told Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty.

Jovanovic indicated that the reasons behind the decision to honour Gaddafi were Libya's "Great Manmade River", the largest irrigation project in the world, as well as Megatrend University's student exchange programme with the state university in Tripoli.

But Srbijanka Turajlic, Serbia's Deputy Minister for Higher Education, said there was no doubt that politics motivated Megatrend to award Gaddafi the doctorate.

In 2009, during Gaddafi's visit to Italy to launch strategic partnerships in higher education, science and technology, La Spienza University in Rome honoured him with a gold medal, in recognition of his role in building cooperation and friendship ties among people.

In related development, the 9 March Movement for the independence of Egypt's universities, has filed a lawsuit demanding that an honorary doctorate in philosophy and economics awarded to Mubarak's wife Suzanne Thabet, be withdrawn. A court will rule on the matter on 20 June. The doctorate was awarded to Thabet at a high-profile ceremony at Cairo University last September.

"These [cases] are evidence of politicalisation of the honorary degree and academic title-awarding system at universities in several countries, indicating the international scope of the problem," Sadallah Boubaker-Khaled, a professor of mathematics at Ecole Normale Supérieure in Algiers, told University World News.

Hilmi Salem, a higher education consultant and Director General of applied sciences and engineering research centres at the Palestine Technical University, said that if the status of academic titles and degrees was to be preserved, they should not be offered to political leaders while they are still in power.

"Based on merit and strict academic guidelines, universities could honor in-service political leaders in other ways such as invitations to deliver talks at universities or giving them non-academic titles such as a friend of the university," Salem said.

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