Distinguished or Disgrace? Considering Barr ’67

Emma Colacino and Hanna Hornfeld

In 2011, Peter Benjamin ‘67 wrote to the Alumni Council, encouraging them to name his former classmate, U.S. Attorney General William Barr ‘67, a distinguished alumnus of the school. Now, nearly a decade later, Benjamin wrote the alumni council another email urging them to revoke that same award. Over the past few months, the council has received a significant amount of correspondence both against and in support of revocation, and is considering whether it, too, should change its stance on Barr. 

This controversy originated after Barr allegedly ordered the forcible removal of Black Lives Matter (BLM) protesters outside the White House in June, leading Kiara Royer ‘20 and Jessica Rosberger ‘20 to create a petition to revoke his distinguished alumnus award, which has received over 8,830 signatures thus far.

According to a Record poll conducted this week, 47.3 percent of 241 students signed the petition. 57.7 percent of respondents prefer that the Alumni Council revoke the award, while 22.4 percent of students voted to keep the award in its entirety, and the remaining 19.9 percent voted for the Council to keep the award but issue a statement condemning Barr’s actions. 

Time at Horace Mann

Conflicting opinions regarding Barr date back to his days in high school, where some, such as Benjamin, remembered him to have a good-natured disposition while others, such as Jimmy Lohman ‘69, considered him a bully.

Barr’s character in high school explains his recent actions, Lohman said. “He’s just a grown-up version of the bully that he was back then, with an amount of power that is unimaginable,” he said. “And instead of bumping into me in the hallway, he is ordering troops to attack peaceful protesters.” 

James Kaplan ‘67 said he wasn’t close with Barr in high school, but he knew Barr as an average individual. “The thing that was unusual about him was that he was politically right-wing,” he said. “He supported Barry Goldwater. Most of us liked Lyndon Johnson.”

Barr demonstrated an early interest in politics. In the Lower Division (LD), which used to refer to the seventh and eighth grades, he wrote for the World News section of The Quill, the LD’s newspaper at the time. In addition to reporting on international current events, Barr penned a few opinion pieces, including an article defending the historical achievements of the Republican party in a point-by-point response to a Democratic writer.

Benjamin, who was close with Barr in high school, said he vividly remembers Barr as funny and personable. On subway rides home from school, the pair had conversations about topics ranging from the Catholic Church to bagpipers. On stage in their theater class, Barr was talented and fun to watch, with “one of the most expressive faces” Benjamin has ever seen, he said.  

Barr’s Mannikin page also highlights his humorous antics: “An incomparable master of facial contortions, Bill had a lighter side which endeared him to his classmates.”

Despite Barr’s apparent light-hearted nature, Lohman remembers Barr as “aggressive” and “confrontational,” he said. “He was just someone I tried to avoid because if I encountered him, he was liable to do something threatening or intimidating.”

Lohman often wore buttons to school in support of the Congress of Racial Equality and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, two well known Civil Rights organizations. “There’s no doubt in my mind that the reason he targeted me was because I wore those buttons,” Lohman said. “The fact that it seemed to be my support for civil rights for African Americans that set him off reflects very poorly on his character.”

Jonathan Smit ‘67 also felt targeted by Barr due to Barr’s belief that Smit was gay, he said. In their gym class, Barr frequently threatened to beat Smit up and called him “Adonis,” in reference to a handsome man in Greek mythology with whom Aphrodite and Persephone fell in love. “I would characterize him as a bit of a brute who liked to throw his weight around,” Smit said. “I just remember him being a lot like the way he is now — very implacable, not warm.” 

College and Career

After graduating, Barr attended Columbia University. When Lohman arrived at Columbia two years later, he learned that Barr had developed a reputation for “attacking” anti-war protesters, he said. According to an article in Politico Magazine, Barr belonged to the “Majority Coalition,” a group of students who “took it upon themselves to shut down [racial justice protesters] — physically, if necessary.” 

At Columbia, Barr received a B.A. in government and M.A. in government and Chinese studies. Between 1973 and 1977, Barr simultaneously worked for the CIA and studied for his J.D. degree from George Washington University at night. He graduated with honors and moved on to a position as a law clerk. 

Barr went on to work at the Washington law firm Shaw, Pittman, Potts & Trowbridge, switching between private practice and public service. Then, between 1982 and 1983, he served on President Ronald Reagan’s Domestic Policy Staff. 

In 1989, under President George H. W. Bush’s administration, Barr became Assistant Attorney General, overseeing the Office of Legal Counsel, and later, Deputy Attorney General. From 1991 to 1993, Barr served as Attorney General of the United States. 

Lohman was taken aback after he heard about the first nomination of his former high school bully to the position of Attorney General by George H.W. Bush in 1991. “I just about fell down,” he said. “The one guy in my life who picked on me was named the highest legal position in the country.” 

Barr’s first nomination motivated Lohman to write an article about Barr’s behavior in high school for a Florida newspaper called the Florida Flambeau. “I read up on him at the time and saw that he had been involved in what I consider to be a lot of questionable activities, and because of my experience personally with him I felt I needed to air that,” he said. When Barr was nominated by President Donald Trump for Attorney General again in December 2018, it was like a recurrent nightmare to Lohman, he said.

Kaplan, however, was highly impressed that Barr was nominated to a federal cabinet position, noting that he is the only member of their class to have done so. After reading the news, Kaplan wrote Barr a letter of congratulations. Barr responded with an invitation to his swearing-in, which Kaplan attended. 

In 2011, Barr was granted the Alumni Association’s Award for Distinguished Achievement by the school’s Alumni Council — a group of alumni volunteers dedicated to maintaining a connection between alumni and the school — for his position as Attorney General under President George H. W. Bush. The award is granted yearly to an alumnus who “exemplifies distinguished achievement in his or her chosen profession or accomplishments,” according to the school’s website.

Barr was nominated for the award by several members of his graduating class. Kaplan remembers signing a paper in support of Barr receiving the award at the request of a former classmate, he said. Benjamin wrote his own letter of support to the council as he believed Barr was deserving of the award and was being overlooked due to his conservative viewpoints. 

In 2019, Barr became Attorney General for the second time under President Trump’s administration. 

Summer Controversy

On June 1, federal law enforcement agents forcibly removed BLM protesters assembled on Lafayette Square to clear the way for the President to take photos outside St. John’s Church. According to the Washington Post, an anonymous Justice Department Official claimed that Barr directly ordered the protesters’ removal, although Barr denied this. The event immediately caught the nation’s attention and sparked outrage over a violation of the First Amendment right to peacefully protest. 

In June, the New York City Bar Association called for Congress to investigate the legality of Barr’s actions in removing the protesters, as well as in reducing Roger Stone’s sentence, his role in Trump’s pardoning Michael Flynn, and providing the public with misleading information regarding the Mueller investigation in 2019. 

On June 23, faculty members at George Washington University Law School, Barr’s alma mater, shared an open letter condemning his behavior as Attorney General under President Trump, stating that Barr had repeatedly favored “fidelity to the whims of the President” over justice. This fidelity, according to the letter, was evident when Barr provided Flynn and Stone preferential treatment because of their relationships with the President and when he seemingly attempted to deceive the public about the Mueller investigation in order to aid the President. The letter stated that “our school’s relationship with Attorney General Barr places us in a unique position, and imposes a unique duty on us to candidly confront his abuse of the office of Attorney General.” The majority of the faculty signed the letter. 

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), an organization that started a petition for Barr’s resignation that has received over 100,000 signatures, published an impeachment report on July 28 underscoring some of what they believe to be Barr’s biggest transgressions. The CREW report highlighted the same concerns raised by the NYC Bar Association and the law school.

On the same day, Barr testified before the House Judiciary Committee as House Democrats questioned him on his alleged misconducts.

Barr’s actions since this summer remain controversial, recently putting him in the national spotlight. This week, he encouraged prosecutors to charge racial injustice protesters with sedition, referred to a nationwide lockdown as the “greatest intrusion of civil liberties … other than slavery,” and reportedly called for charges against Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan for allowing designated police-free zones in BLM protests. 

The Petition

Shortly after the incident at Lafayette Square, Royer and Rosberger were texting each other about Barr. Rosberger suggested that the two start a Change.org petition to encourage the Alumni Council to rethink his distinguished alumnus award, Royer said. “It came out of reading a bunch of articles and watching the news and seeing how seriously problematic what he did was,” Rosberger said.

Within an hour, Royer said the pair created the petition, wrote the blurb, and posted about it on Instagram. The number of signatures skyrocketed. Royer and Rosberger’s friends shared the link on social media, and they soon noticed that other alumni were posting about it on Twitter and Facebook. “Once it hit one or two people from every graduating class, it really took off,” Royer said.

On June 6, the Alumni Council posted on their webpage that they were aware of the petition and were going to deliberate on the issue. On July 16, they released a second statement outlining what factors they were considering — specifically, “the current candidate selection criteria, the topic of recission, precedent established by other academic and non-profit organizations, and community feedback.” 

The council has been working hard behind the scenes, President of the Alumni Council Samantha Cooper Brand ‘01 said. As soon as the petition was brought to her attention, Brand discussed it with members of the administration, including Head of School Dr. Tom Kelly and members of the Board of Trustees. 

The council held a Zoom meeting on June 15 for members to express their views, after which Brand asked for volunteers from its voting body to form a special subcommittee to review the issue. Twelve people stepped forward, including Brand and now co-chairs of the subcommittee Alexandra Levin ‘00 and Joseph Pinion ‘01.

Since then, the subcommittee has been carefully weighing its options, Brand said. “We plan on having a robust report at the end of this, to really address the community as a whole, so they can really understand what we did, how we did it, and how we came to our conclusion,” Pinion said.

Royer and Rosberger emailed the council on June 8 to introduce themselves, share the list of names and comments on the petition, and request that the council rethink the award. They did not receive a response. Once the petition reached 8,000 supporters, they reached out again, asking to speak on behalf of the signatories. 

On July 1, nearly a month after first creating the petition, the pair wrote an open letter to the council further explaining their point of view with the goal of pressuring them into responding, Royer said. By coincidence, later that day, the subcommittee invited them to join their meeting on July 16 — held prior to posting their second update — which they attended. 

At that meeting, the council asked Royer and Rosberger clarifying questions to better understand their point of view, and the pair asked the council questions in order to see what the major concerns holding them back were, Royer said. After the meeting, Royer expected the committee to be able to make a quick decision about whether or not to revoke the award; however, they have yet to decide. 

The committee is spending a long time deliberating, in part because it has never revoked an award before and as such does not have a process for doing so, Brand said. Determining the threshold for a revocation, creating a process that can be replicated in the future, and deciding if the council is even going to revoke awards in the first place is a time-consuming process, Pinion said. “We have to, as a body, be ready to understand that the decisions that we make set a precedent,” he said.

Furthermore, because the exact details of what happened at Lafayette Square have been under investigation by Congress, the committee has to balance the importance of considering information that continues to be released with their goal to reach a decision in a timely manner. 

Community Deliberates

This issue is very important to many members of the community, so the subcommittee is doing its best to give everybody an opportunity to express their perspective, Levin said. The council has received a lot of passionate correspondence from alumni, students, teachers, and parents on both sides of the debate and is working to make a decision that will appropriately take everyone’s opinion into account, Brand said.

Several members of the class of 1967, including Benjamin, wish that the council had sent out a general email to all alumni directly asking for their opinions, he said. Benjamin had to dig deeply into the school website in order to realize that the council was open to entertaining peoples’ opinions. He emailed them because he regrets his initial support of Barr and wants the council to rescind his award, he said.

When Benjamin originally voiced his support for the award in 2011, he had kept his political disagreements with Barr out of the equation because he had seen Barr as honest during his first stint as Attorney General. However, Benjamin said that since Barr is now allowing his personal beliefs to politicize the Justice Department, he is no longer worthy of the award.

When considering if Barr is worthy of the award, a part of the debate is whether revoking it would be an inappropriate political statement. In their open letter, Royer and Rosberger wrote, “This is not an issue of political parties but one of morality… The actions of the Attorney General in early June were in clear contempt of the protesters’ constitutional rights and against our country’s fundamental values.” 

Despite this argument, others do not believe that the debate is indisputably nonpartisan. “Anyone who works in Washington for an administration has some tinge of politics on what they’re doing,” Levin said. “Unfortunately, this request is hard to separate from the very strong feelings that people have intertwined with politics.” 

Scott Matthews ‘86 said that although the issue is political, he would still disapprove of Barr’s actions if the political parties were reversed. “It’s kind of silly to pretend that there aren’t politics involved,” he said. “But even if there are politics involved, so what? He’s still harming the country. Saying you can’t take a stand because it’s politics is also taking a stand.”

Kaplan does not support Barr’s actions or politics, but he thinks Barr still deserves the title of distinguished alumnus, he said. “I didn’t agree with his political views in the late 60s, and I don’t agree with them now,” he said. “But that’s not the point. The point is that somebody from Horace Mann achieved a very high professional position.”

Clementine Bondor (10) also said that Barr deserves the honor and that removing it would conflate politics with an ostensibly nonpartisan award. “He attained a seat in one of the highest legal positions in the country, which requires work, integrity, intelligence, public service, and an immovable sense of self,” she said. “Regardless or whether or not one appreciates or condemns any of his political actions, his hard work and service warrant recognition. He can keep the award and still be criticized by the community.”

While serving as the U.S. Attorney General qualifies as a “distinguished achievement,” it shouldn’t be the only requirement for the award, Lohman said. 

Similarly, Tomoko Hida (11) said that although Barr’s past accomplishments are admirable, they do not excuse his present actions, which are harmful to the country as a whole. “We are in an active movement where we need the support of the leaders of our country to move forward as a nation,” she said. Hida said that Barr has abused his power by aiding President Trump in his immoral, destructive, and racially charged agenda.

“Mr. Barr has become a major actor in a campaign to diminish the civil liberties of Americans,” Benjamin wrote in his email to the council. “He is at Mr. Trump’s side enthusiastically backing a campaign of racial division and hatred… I trust [the council] will agree with me that these actions are utterly contrary to the values of the Horace Mann school.”

Rosberger said that recipients’ values are projected onto those of the school, and therefore they should align with those that the school supports. “For students, it’s important to be able to look up to figures who have won this award, in addition to seeing how the values of our school have been realized over time in certain distinguished alumni,” she said.

To keep Barr on the distinguished alumni list would be to actively endorse his values, Hida said. If the council doesn’t revoke Barr’s award, it should at least release a statement condemning his behavior, she said. 

The school’s core values are listed in the Family Handbook as mutual respect, mature behavior, life of the mind, a secure and healthful environment, and a balance between individual achievement and a caring community.

Barr’s repeated disregard for his responsibilities to the country and constitution should be enough for the school to express opposition to his values, Lynn Novick ‘79 said. Although Novick, who won the award in 2018, wouldn’t normally support the revocation of an honor that was awarded so long ago, the situation warrants change because Barr’s actions have strayed too far beyond the school’s core values, she said. 

“[Barr] has dedicated himself since becoming Attorney General to serving the interests of Donald Trump, period. He does not serve the American people. He has undermined ‘a secure and healthful environment’ in the justice department and in the country, does not treat others with ‘mutual respect,’ nor does he foster ‘a caring community’ for anyone other than the president,” Novick said. “If the school really believes in these core values, and I hope it does, I don’t see how they can stand by this award to someone who represents the opposite.”  

Bondor feels that certain core values — which Barr does exemplify — have been overlooked. “Have we forgotten about the life of the mind?” she said. “The Horace Mann I know values independent thought as a tool to aid students to connect with the world around them and accomplish great things. Barr has accomplished something great by making his way into this position. Surely he has embodied the intellectual curiosity and dedication that the HM spirit is about.”

Bondor noted several of Barr’s past achievements, including his role in creating programs to combat violent crime, in counter-terrorism activities during the Gulf War, in the Department of Justice’s response to the savings and loan crisis, and in the deregulation of telecommunications companies in the ‘80s and ‘90s. “Such accomplishments cannot happen without the life of the mind,” she said.

In addition to being inconsistent with the school’s values, allowing Barr to keep his award may diminish the prestige of being named a distinguished alumnus, Royer said. However, as a former award winner, Novick feels differently. “I don’t see the distinguished alumni award to be some perfect representation of the greater good and that he’s tarnished it,” Novick said. “I just feel like if the school stands for the values it says it stands for, he’s the least worthy recipient that I can think of.”

Gary Marton ‘67 does not support Barr’s values either, but he said that the award should be left alone because those values are not a reflection of the school’s teaching or belief system. “He does not claim that he has been acting, directly or indirectly, as a representative of HM or as an adherent to its principles,” Marton said. “Nor does HM claim that Barr has been acting on its behalf. As far as I am concerned, the school remains unblemished by anything that Bill Barr has done.”

Dan Weisman ‘71, however, said that the council and administration’s lack of action regarding the award does reflect upon the school — and it does so poorly. As a result, Weisman, who supports revoking the award, will donate to Hackley, which his sister attended, instead. “This is just a further blot on the Horace Mann reputation, and I don’t want to be associated with it,” he said.

Scott Rogowsky ‘03, who has over 135,000 followers on Twitter, stated on Twitter that he, too, would no longer donate to the school. “I’m done with the school, frankly,” he said. “My dad, uncles, [and] sister went to Horace Mann. But if this is how the administration operates, I’m not going to send my kid there.” Rogowsky acknowledges that the Alumni Council is a separate body from the school itself, but he said that if the administration wanted the award revoked it would have pressured the council to do so.

Recent Activity

On September 9, Royer and Rosberger released a second open letter criticizing the Alumni Council’s lack of transparency about its deliberation process and its failure to make a timely decision. “We, as many of you do, personally believe that AG Barr’s immoral actions warrant the revocation of his award,” they wrote. “However, we never demanded this: our petition is entitled Rethink Attorney General William Barr’s Status as a Distinguished Alumnus of Horace Mann… The Alumni Council has made little effort to seriously reconsider their conferring of the Distinguished Achievement Award on AG Barr. They have been conspicuously slow walking our petition since its inception.”

In their second open letter, the pair shared two emails they had sent to the committee since their meeting on July 16, to which they never received a response. The council’s responses to prior emails were also unclear and left many questions unanswered, Royer and Rosberger wrote. If the Council does not make a decision soon, Royer and Rosberger encouraged former recipients to return their awards, future nominees to decline the award, and the administration and Board of Trustees to reconsider the Council’s legitimacy as an organization intended to represent the school’s alumni. The pair ended the open letter once again asking the Council to make a final decision and explain it to the public, writing that “it is still not too late to do the right thing.”

The next day, the Council posted a third update informing the community that the special committee had finished discussing the issue and was now in the process of drafting its report to the Council. Once this report is complete, the Council will vote to make a final decision.

The committee is aware that some are disturbed by its lengthy decision-making process, but ultimately, it owes the community a thoughtful discussion rather than an impulsive one, Brand said. “We’d be foolish to think that what the council decides is not going to be attributed to the school, but that is also why we are taking such a deliberate response: to make sure that we are accounting for the implications of the decision that we ultimately come to,” Pinion said. 

This isn’t the first time the school has grappled with rescinding honors. The main field used to be named after former Head of School R. Inslee Clark Jr. and has since been renamed Alumni Field, after pressure from alumni following Clark’s exposure for his involvement in, and subsequent cover-up of, the sexual abuse of students throughout the 1970s and 80s. “It’s been done before — editing the narrative and acknowledging that things have changed and we can no longer associate our school and our values with such a person,” Royer said.

Still, revoking Barr’s award would come with complications. Rabbi Michael LaPoff ‘73 said that a revocation will lead to picking apart the actions of all other recipients, leaving no room for mistakes. “You will need to go and look at every award recipient and examine them through the lens of current political correctness and revoke their awards too,” he said. “I’m sure someone can find some problem with Horace Mann. Maybe we need to change the name of the school?”

Rogowsky has heard people express similar concerns about having to revoke other awards — especially that of former governor of New York Eliot Spitzer ‘77, who resigned in 2008 after a prostitution scandal — but Barr’s situation is unique, he said. “Are there 9,000 people asking the council to revoke [Spitzer’s] award? No. This is a very specific instance where the community of alumni are standing up and saying this is crossing the line.”

Although the petition has a high number of signatories, Arthur Greyf P’22 P’32 warns against overlooking those who do not support revocation. “If you talk to 50% of the United States at this point, they will tell you that Barr did not do anything immoral,” he said. “It just happens that Horace Mann has a high number of liberals, and they feel that way. And they have a right to be upset with Barr, but I don’t think they have the right to strip him of his well-deserved award.”

Similarly, LaPoff said that revoking the award would ostracize those members of the community who disagree with the petition. “The discourse in our nation in the past years has become angry and violent. Accusations, gossip and character assassination have become the norm: ‘I am always right, they are always wrong,’” he said. “If the alumni council revokes the award, the message they send is that Horace Mann is no longer a school that fosters learning and free exchange of ideas but has become an indoctrination center for progressive ideology.”

While Rogowsky is disappointed with the administration’s lack of action, he is heartened by the actions of the students who started the petition. 

“In this incredibly tumultuous time, with so much upheaval and reckoning, for Horace Mann students to take it upon themselves to say, ‘Our school has a small role to play here’ — I was really proud of that,” Novick said.

Barr did not respond for comment by press time.