Every year as fall approaches, small talk seems to revolve around the question of “Where did the summer go?” Some years it’s been too dry, others, as in this year, too wet. Yet it always seems to fly by. And fly, it did, for Ali Mazrui, Albert Schweitzer Professor of the Humanities and director of the Institute of Global Cultural Studies.
His summer flew by because he spent much of it flying between two continents and four countries to receive honorary degrees from four separate institutions. The first, in divinity, came from Lafayette College in Pennsylvania in May at a ceremony that also saw the state’s governor, Edward Rendell, receive an honorary doctorate.
Mazrui gave the sermon for the interfaith baccalaureate service prior to graduation. “My sermon was on God and globalization,” he said. “I used one verse of the Koran as a refrain celebrating human diversity. Initially, I said it in Arabic, then in English.”
The next degree, this one in political economy, was conferred by the University of Tran-skei in South Africa. The University at Transkei also awarded an honorary degree to former president Nelson Mandela in the same week as Mazrui. At that ceremony, Mazrui spoke about the seven pillars of the African renaissance “because the concept of it is very strong in South Africa.”
Mazrui’s third honorary doctorate – a doctor of letters – came from the main university in Ethiopia in Addis Ababa where the country’s president, Ato Girma Wolde-Giorgis, conferred the degree.
“In Ethiopia, my lecture was based on Africa as having two cultural parents and one cultural guardian – the parents being indigenous African values and Islam and the guardian being Western values,” he said. “It was very tight traveling between South Africa and Ethiopia to make the ceremony. There was one single flight and if I missed it, the Ethiopian portion would have fallen by the wayside for this year. Fortunately, all was on time.”
The fourth and final doctorate of the summer was granted by Jomo Kenyata University in Kenya in science and human resource development, and had perhaps the most meaning for Mazrui, a native of Kenya who grew up in Mombasa.
“All of them are of much value,” he said. “But the Kenyan one bears a certain significance because the previous Kenyan administration distanced itself from me. Then the new president, Mwai Kibaki, called me in Binghamton and offered me the chancellorship of Jomo Kenyata, when previously I would not even be invited to give a public lecture. I was taboo for the public.
“This marks a major change in my relationship with the political establishment in Kenya.”
Previously, the president of Kenya had served as chancellor for all of the public universities in Kenya. Under the new administration, Mazrui and several others have been installed as chancellor for individual universities for a five-year period. This new position has created opportunities to redefine the role to determine what kind of consultative part to play, Mazrui said.
The Kenyan honorary doctorate was also somewhat of a surprise because it was granted at the same ceremony in which Mazrui was installed as chancellor of the university.
His speech at the ceremony was on “what I call the ethics of professionalism and integrity because there was a lot of debate at the time in that country about corruption.
“In fact, my first job ever before I had any degree was at a technical school in Mombasa, Kenya, that taught different kinds of engineering.”
Mazrui’s role was as a young warden of the residential side of what is now called Mombasa Polytechnic. His university in Kenya is now exploring offering degrees to a selection of students there.
“It is a remarkable transition for me to have started there as a very young man, and then to be the chancellor of a much-transformed Kenya today,” he said.
Speaking at all four institutions added to the significance of the degrees, said Mazrui. “Not everybody who is given such an award is requested to make a major address,” he said. “Being the main commencement speaker was an additional honor.”