Sapienza urged to revoke Tunisian president’s honorary doctorate

Petitioners ask leading Italian university to look again at honorary degree for Kaïs Saïed over his replacement theory rhetoric and constitutional power grabs

July 28, 2023
Source: iStock

More than 100 scientists have written to the rector of the Sapienza University of Rome, asking her to reconsider an honorary doctorate awarded to Tunisia’s “racist and xenophobic” president, Kaïs Saïed.

Mr Saïed was awarded the doctorate in Roman law, theory of legal systems and private market law in June 2021, with Sapienza citing his work on Tunisia’s 2014 constitution and “brotherhood between two illustrious, very ancient civilisations”.

Just over a month later, he suspended parliament, dismissed the prime minister, and announced he would temporarily rule by decree. In the two years since he has suspended the constitution, declared a state of emergency and had political opponents arrested.

He has also used speeches to attack sub-Saharan migrants, describing them as “hordes” who had brought “violence, crime and unacceptable practices” to the Arab-majority country, as part of a plot to deliberately shift its ethnic makeup.

Signatories to the petition calling for Sapienza to rethink his doctorate include the Fields Medal-winning French mathematician and politician, Cédric Villani, and the US feminist philosopher Judith Butler.

The petitioners contrast Sapienza’s participation in a United Nations-backed refugee education project with its apparent endorsement of Mr Saïed and said a recent European Union deal to control migrant flows could bring more human rights abuses. “Maintaining this title associates La Sapienza with an authoritarian and racist regime, and legitimises its abuses,” they write, adding that “the worst dictators die one day, but universities do not”.

Mr Saïed is a former academic, having been a law professor at the University of Sousse and the University of Carthage.

Sapienza is far from the first university to find itself in a corner over the recipient on an honorary degree. Edith Cowan University in Perth withdrew an honorary doctorate to the MP Barry House just four months after awarding it, when he used a letter to a local newspaper to defend his views and parliamentary votes against gay rights.

Anglia Ruskin University pulled an honorary degree to Hong Kong lawmaker Junius Ho, after he described masked men who allegedly attacked pro-democracy demonstrators with wooden and metal rods as “heroes”.

The Sultan of Brunei returned his honorary degree from the University of Oxford after over 100,000 people signed a petition over his plans to introduce the death penalty for gay sex and adultery. The university had been reviewing the award at the time.

Times Higher Education has invited Sapienza to respond to the petition.

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