Former United States president Bill Clinton spoke to a crowd of around 800 people on Friday when he accepted an honorary doctorate from McGill for “a lifetime of outstanding leadership” from McGill. The ceremony was held at the Centre Mont-Royal, a privately owned building off campus, as part of the University’s inaugural Leadership Summit.
The event was a private, invitation-only ceremony. Attendees included McGill Senate members and active volunteers with the Campaign McGill fundraising initiative. Very few students were invited to the ceremony, but those who attended included student senators and students awarded the Clinton-Dahdaleh scholarship.
“We wanted to make it part of our Leadership Summit. We couldn’t invite all the students; the space of course would not be appropriate,” said Marc Weinstein, Vice-Principal (Development and Alumni Relations).
Weinstein also said that the University did not pay Clinton to accept the degree and that no donation was made to the Clinton Foundation. The invitation was made at no cost to the University by an alumnus, Victor Dahdaleh, who is a “very close ally” of Clinton.
The Senate approved Clinton’s candidacy for the honorary doctorate on May 20 but invitations were not sent out until October 2.
Antonia Maioni, political science professor and director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, said that honorary degrees are a reciprocal relationship.
“It’s a two-way relationship that will be developing between McGill and President Clinton’s foundation. It says that the foundation is global in reach to get an honorary degree from one of the world’s top-rated universities. And it is certainly an honour for McGill to have someone who is perceived as a leader on so many fronts and places [accept the degree],” Maioni said.
Gil Troy, history professor at McGill who studies American politics, said that Clinton’s reputation has fluctuated with the current world financial situation.
“Whats interesting with the [George W.] Bush debacle and the rise of Obama [is that] in some ways Clinton’s administration has been both enhanced and diminished. It was enhanced because the recession was the Republicans’ fault and now there’s a resurge for the Democrats,” Troy said. “[But] if we look closely at the causes of the recession, [we] have to link the eighties with the nineties. It’s very hard to take Clinton out of the narrative of Reagan and [George H.W.] Bush.”
After being conferred with the honorary doctorate, Clinton gave a speech to the crowd. “I am profoundly honoured to be here at this magnificent university,” he said.
For much of his speech, Clinton focused on addressing inequalities around the world. “We know that half the world is living on less than $2 a day; a billion people go to bed hungry; a billion people have no access to clean water; [and] two and a half billion people [have] no access to sanitation,” Clinton said. He reiterated throughout his speech that the world today is extremely interconnected and interdependent, and stressed the need for a world conscience.
“We have to have a world conscience, and in the absence of it, we will not make the right decisions…. This inequality problem cannot be solved by anybody alone; it will require a communitarian mentality,” Clinton said.
Science senator Andrew Ling was one of few students who was invited to the ceremony. Ling thought that Clinton’s speech was inspirational. “I thought he really showed how every single individual can have an impact on the world, regardless of his or her life and social circumstances. If we can get each person to take a small action, we can make progress,” he said.