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Morehouse faculty set to vote next week on whether to award Biden an honorary degree

There's been some criticism of the decision to have the president give the commencement address. The first real test of how widespread the objections are will come next week.
Joe Biden speaking
President Joe Biden is set to give the commencement address at Morehouse College on May 19.Kyle Mazza / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images file

ATLANTA — A group of Morehouse College faculty members are pushing to stop the school from conferring an honorary doctorate on President Joe Biden at its commencement ceremony on May 19.

Morehouse President David Thomas met virtually with faculty members Wednesday to discuss the issue.

“A majority of the comments were opposed to an honorary degree, but there were a couple of very strong defenses,” a faculty member who was on the call said.

Those against the decision criticized Biden’s policies on policing and mass incarceration, his handling of the conflict in Gaza and his more recent comments around student protests. Those in favor of the honorary degree called attacks against Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza “unwarranted," according to the person on the call.

Still, it’s unclear exactly how widespread the dissatisfaction is. The first real test will come next week. 

Though Morehouse announced last month that Biden would be awarded an honorary doctorate, procedurally, faculty must still vote on it. That vote is scheduled to take place on Thursday — three days before commencement — during a regularly scheduled faculty meeting, according to the faculty member.

Cedric Richmond, a Morehouse alumnus who is a co-chair of Biden’s re-election campaign, said Biden had“earned an honorary degree.”

“You reduce Black child poverty by 50% in one year. You put the first African American woman on the Supreme Court in the history of the United States. You put more African American women on the courts of appeal than all other presidents put together. You close the racial wealth gap to the lowest it’s ever been, Black unemployment is the lowest it’s ever been. … All of those things are very instrumental in the African American community,” Richmond told NBC News. 

In a statement, Morehouse College acknowledged some disagreements but said that the reason there will be a vote on the honorary degree was simply because of a procedural snafu.

"It is imperative to clarify that the recent decision to convene to vote to award Biden an honorary degree is not in question because of current political affairs," the statement read. "The decision to call for a faculty vote is due to a mistaken oversight in the process, which traditionally includes a faculty vote that usually takes place in September. To honor the correct process and ensure the inclusion of the faculty voice, Morehouse leadership called for a faculty meeting to pose a vote, which will then go to the Board of Trustees for final approval."

"During the faculty meeting, in true Morehouse fashion, the full range of perspectives was expressed — those of support and concern, not unlike the national societal discussion," it added.

In the run-up to Biden's speech, some faculty members have also started circulating a letter to express their “collective dissent” against honoring Biden.

“We, the undersigned faculty members of Morehouse College, write to express our collective dissent regarding the invitation extended to President Joseph R. Biden to deliver the Commencement address at this year’s graduation ceremony, and we certainly do not assent to granting him an honorary Morehouse degree,” read the letter, which was shared with NBC News. 

Three Morehouse faculty members read the letter out loud during a rally on Morehouse’s campus Wednesday morning.

“His continued supplying and supporting of the IDF and its genocidal campaign against not Hamas, but 35,000 Palestinians including 15,000 children according to most credible news accounts is grounds for him standing before the International Court of Justice not before a class of graduating Men of Morehouse,” the letter continued, also condemning Biden’s “callous support for the dictatorial Kagame regime and its proxy war in the Democratic Republic of Congo.”

The objections underscore the frustrations with Biden on many college campuses, which have dealt with pro-Palestinian protests this spring.  Biden will be the commencement speaker at one other school, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. 

A White House source said the president remains excited to speak at Morehouse and emphasized that despite divisions on campus, no effort has been made by Morehouse leadership to rescind his invitation to speak, adding that “there has been no discussions to backtrack in either direction.”

“We are happy to focus on the students and also use this opportunity to have the president speak directly to the students to address their concerns,” the White House source said, adding that Biden is not “dissuaded” by the prospect of protest.

Dissatisfaction at Morehouse began even before the school officially announced that Biden would deliver the commencement speech. 

Faculty members and school administrators have urged the White House to participate in some form of "direct engagement" prior to the commencement address. Now, some faculty members are also advocating that the president receive a “peace council” rather than serve as commencement speaker when he comes to the campus.

“It’s an attempt to kind of reverse the direction of communication,” the faculty member, who is also circulating the letter, said. “Typically, you know, the commencement speaker speaks at us from a position of moral authority and kind of gives advice to the graduating class. I think the idea is to kind of reverse that line of communication and compel the president to listen to the message coming from the Morehouse community.”

Ahead of the faculty meeting Wednesday, a group of roughly 50 students and faculty members across both Morehouse College and Spelman College gathered to protest “against the war on Gaza” — which began after the Hamas attacks on Israel on Oct. 7 — with many specifically calling on Biden to cancel his graduation plans. Several students characterized Biden’s visit as being political in nature, and a bid to garner support among young Black voters.

Malik Pool, a junior software engineering student, pointed to the fact that although the school invited Biden to be its commencement speaker in September, he didn’t accept it until April, a little over a week after former President Donald Trump visited a Chick-Fil-A miles away from Morehouse’s campus.

“It is so obvious that it’s just about the presidential campaign, and under normal circumstances, Joseph R. Biden would not be on our campus,” Pool said. 

Richmond called that idea that Biden’s visit was rooted in electoral politics “patently false.”

“Look at the history of it. He does an HBCU every year, and we did Howard, he did Delaware State. And he’s doing Morehouse,” Richmond said. “But if you only do one a year, one is always going to fall in an election year.”

Lonnie White, a junior sociology and film student, predicted protests when Biden visits.

“The student body is not going for this. We do not want Biden on our campus and we will make that known,” he said. “We will make that known for sure.”