Some people just can't face the prospect of former senator Bill Armstrong getting an honorary degree from the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs on May 19. So they plan to turn their backs on him.
While Armstrong receives his doctorate in "humane letters" at the urging of CU president Judith Albino, some faculty members will wear armbands, stand up and turn their backs to the podium. The honorary award has opened an old and deep wound: The ex-GOP senator was a key figure in denouncing homosexuality during the successful Amendment 2 campaign to ban gay-rights ordinances in Colorado.
Some critics think that's why CU chose to give Armstrong his award in conservative Colorado Springs rather than liberal Boulder. CU spokesman David Grimm denies that was a consideration and cites Armstrong's ties to Colorado Springs via the Colorado Springs Sun, a now-defunct newspaper his family owned. CU also wanted to spread the honorary doctorates around CU's campuses, he adds.
And if CU did want to avoid trouble by honoring Armstrong in Colorado Springs, it won't work. "We were trying to find a way to make the protest civil," says John Miller, a CU-Colorado Springs professor of Spanish who's coordinating the action. "We respect our students. We don't respect this honorary degree."
Armstrong couldn't be reached for comment, but such complaints earn a raspberry from Kevin Tebedo, president of Colorado for Family Values, which pushed for Amendment 2. Tebedo says the protesters should "sit down, be quiet, let him accept this award." Armstrong "has served this state well" and deserves his degree, he continues, adding, "Who cares what they think?"
Albino nominated the former senator in a letter to the CU Board of Regents last November, lauding him as "one of the Senate's leaders for international human rights," particularly on behalf of the "millions of victims of forced labor in the Soviet Union." Albino added, "In an era of fallen role models, this nomination presents the university with the unique opportunity to honor a true `citizen legislator'--a man who exemplifies a successful community and public servant."
A committee consisting of five regents and three CU faculty members approved the honorary degree without considering Armstrong's political views, Grimm insists. "If we had a litmus test for everyone, we would never honor anyone," he says. "We certainly understand that some people in this state have a problem with Armstrong's beliefs. We just don't speak to the political issues on that."
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Armstrong himself certainly doesn't shy away from political issues. In 1991 he wrote a letter mailed by Colorado for Family Values that blamed the AIDS epidemic on the "self-created personal miseries of pleasure-addicted gays."
Grimm points out that Robert Redford's environmental stances and ex-senator Tim Wirth's "liberal" politics also may have offended some people, but that didn't prevent them from receiving honorary degrees at past CU ceremonies. "It seems unfair to me that if you hold some political view that is unpopular, all the rest of your life's work cannot be honored," he says.
But that argument doesn't convince Miller and other faculty members.
"Humane letters seem inappropriate in any application to ex-senator Armstrong, [who is] not very compassionate to the offenses against gays and lesbians in employment, housing and public accommodations," Miller wrote in a letter circulated on the Springs campus.
Illana Zhenya Gallon, a spokeswoman for Campus Lambda, a CU-Boulder group of gay, lesbian and bisexual faculty, adds, "At best, it's naive. At worst, it's extremely insensitive.