Alumni Council will not revoke Barr’s award

Alumni Council will not revoke Barr's award

Hanna Hornfeld and Emma Colacino

After months of deliberation, the Alumni Council announced this morning that it will not revoke Attorney General William Barr ‘67’s Alumni Association’s Award for Distinguished Achievement. 

The Council voted on October 19 to release a detailed Report with its final decision and reasoning to the public. They concluded that the facts surrounding Barr’s involvement in the removal of protesters at Lafayette Square were not clear enough to warrant a revocation. The Council focused solely on the events of Lafayette Square because those were the events noted in the petition as the reason for the request to reevaluate the award, Co-Chair of Subcommittee Alexandra Levin ‘00 said. 

The Report was written by 13 members of the Council’s voting body who volunteered in June to join a special Subcommittee to review the issue and write a recommendation to the Council. 

Head of Alumni Council Samantha Brand ‘01, Co-Chair of the Subcommittee Joseph Pinion ‘01, and Levin declined to reveal the final vote. The members of the Committee remained anonymous for privacy and so that they had space to form opinions without distraction, Levin said. However, they all belong to the Council, whose members are listed on its website. 

The Council is an independent body from the school. The administration was not involved in the decision of the council or in the creation of the report. 

Members of the community have criticized the Committee for the amount of time it has taken to reach a final decision. “They have been conspicuously slow walking our petition since its inception,” Kiara Royer ‘20 and Jessica Rosberger ‘20 wrote in an open letter on September 9. “Their inaction has made us question the authenticity and even the purpose of the Alumni Council.” 

The process took a long time because the Committee took the charge seriously and did not want to make an uninformed decision, Pinion said.

The Committee considered waiting until after the Presidential Election to release its decision, but ultimately decided it would be best to share the report as soon as it was finalized, Pinion said. “To wait would be playing politics with a process that we strove so hard and fervently to avoid politics in, in the first place,” Pinion said. 

In their open letter, Royer and Rosberger also wrote that the Council was not as transparent about its process as it should have been. 

Levin understands the desire for frequent updates on a matter that so many people feel strongly about, but completing the work took a significant amount of time and there often were no real updates to share as the work was in progress, she said. The Committee issued public statements when there was something material to share, she said.

To be as fair as possible, the Committee had to come up with a reevaluation process that could be replicated in the future. “You can’t have one set of standards for one honoree but not for everybody else,” Levin said.

Their reevaluation process involved the consideration of community feedback, precedent for award revocation at other institutions, the facts of the event at Lafayette Square, and award criteria, according to the Report.

The Committee met once a week nearly every week during the summer. To ensure they were hearing as many voices as possible, the Committee reviewed comments on the petition, social media comments, and emails and phone calls to the school Alumni Office and to the Committee, according to the Report. “We felt we owed it to the community to address the issues the petition raised,” Brand said. “We wanted to examine in a deliberate process the community feedback.”

In July, the Committee met with Royer and Rosberger. “We wanted to understand the true motivations behind them forming the petition, what their thoughts were, and what they were interested in,” Pinion said.

The Committee cross-checked signatures with names of current and former students, parents, and faculty members to ensure that they were receiving and responding to comments and feedback that were from members of the community, Levin said. This step was necessary because although other signatories may feel strongly about the administration, they do not necessarily represent the school community, she said.

The Committee received passionate correspondence from people on either side of the debate in the form of emails and social media posts, which the Council reviewed, Levin said. 

When considering the possible revocation of Barr’s award, the Committee had to debate whether or not the Council should revoke an award in the first place, as the issue of revocation has never come up in the award’s history, Pinion said. “We had to go through whether it was in the best interest of the community to even be in the business of revoking awards or not.” 

The Committee concluded that in order to revoke the award, they would need to be certain of all of the facts of the situation, to have taken into consideration the views of all community members, and to have used a deliberate, just, and replicable process, according to the Report. “We evaluated everything that we could get our hands on, regarding what actually happened and why, and we came to the best conclusion given the facts that we had at our disposal,” Levin said. 

After conducting its research, the Committee decided that it did not have enough indisputable evidence to determine Barr’s exact involvement in the incident, according to the Report. “[Barr’s] accounts are somewhat at odds with what people might feel like his motivations were or what he actually did — all of that is still very unclear.”

During their deliberation process, the Committee realized that many members of the community felt that Award recipients should uphold the school’s Core Values. A major argument in support of revocation was that Barr’s actions had transgressed political actions to a point where he had overstepped a moral boundary that conflicted with the values of the school, Pinion said. 

The Committee chose to look at Barr’s situation based on the criteria for which he received the award: objective distinguished achievement. “While, historically, many have referred to the Award casually as the ‘Distinguished Alumnus/a Award,’ the focus of the deliberation has always been on achievement recorded at the time of nomination,” they wrote in the Report.

Moving forward, the Council will deliberately think about whether an award nominee’s actions line up with the Core Values and will work harder to reach out to alumni in order to get more people involved in the process of nominating potential honorees, Brand said. “The school is constantly evolving and the award should do the same,” she said.