Op-eds, Opinions

Morley ’13: Rescind Junot Díaz’s Honorary Doctorate

By
op-ed contributor
Friday, May 18, 2018

Junot Díaz has been accused of sexual assault and misogynistic verbal abuse. I won’t reiterate the accusations here, nor will I go into the virulent objectification of women common throughout Díaz’s body of literary work, nor the barely veiled authorial self-insertion with which it was delivered. You all have Google. More important is divesting our academic institution of its unfortunate symbiosis with Díaz. As one of Brown’s many non-donating indebted alums, I urge the University and President Christina Paxson P’19 to rescind Díaz’s honorary doctorate.

Díaz’s alleged abuse of the power endowed by literary recognition, even if not necessarily criminal, demands response from his enablers, hangers-on and mutual cultural beneficiaries. The University, which granted Díaz an Honorary Doctorate of Letters in 2013, is one such beneficiary.

Honorary degrees, charitably, are a way to recognize people doing work that the University sees as representative of its values, particularly if those people didn’t have the luck and resources to enter the ivory tower of higher education.

Uncharitably, honorary degrees are Mammonistic PR, a way for academic power to easily and cheaply reinforce itself, shoring up its legitimacy by linking to other power structures within society. In highlighting someone like a hip literary wunderkind, Brown likely gets an alumni donation bump, student application recognition, perhaps donations from literary institutions and the general free media buzz that comes with cultural darlings. Maybe the recipient will later on even take a special interest in the institution, preferably monetary or money-adjacent, such as having a child or wealthy friend’s child apply and almost certainly attend.

In return, Díaz gets to add another degree to his resume, gets more renown and respect as an Important Intellectual in the publishing and academic spheres. Plus, he gets to do more of whatever he wants to do safe in the knowledge that he can turn to the degree-granting institution for support that is, again, preferably monetary or money-adjacent, such as implicitly or explicitly vouching for his legitimacy in the event of a publicity fiasco.

This setup is akin to the remora and the shark, the clownfish and the anemone, the squirrel and the acorn. The pact gives the two participants more of their desired power at almost no personal cost, until one of the beneficiaries loses their status. That’s when the relationship turns parasitic: a help for one, a harm to the other.

With the revelation of his private misogyny, Díaz should rightly lose his place in the contemporary literary pantheon. Brown’s endorsement of his work and ideas, which now prominently feature chronic, unironic misogyny as opposed to the thoughtful deconstruction of the same that so many of our cultural arbiters presumed he was performing, now does Brown a disservice while giving Díaz a crutch to lean on. Charitably or otherwise, this is not a good look for the brand of an academic entity supposedly interested in social justice.

Do the right thing, President Paxson, and rescind Díaz’s honorary doctorate. I won’t give you money or exposure or tax credits to do it, though I promise that making concrete the ideals your institution espouses has its own particular return on investment.

Nicholas Morley ’13 is a former member of The Herald’s editorial page board and can be reached at dodcamper@gmail.com. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.