DENVER—President George W. Bush will receive an award when he delivers the keynote address at a University of Denver fundraiser, just not a humanitarian award.
Instead, the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at DU will present Bush with the Global Service Award at its Sept. 9 dinner following a petition drive launched by a former student over urging school officials to “choose an alternative recipient.”
Christine Hart, a 2012 graduate of the Korbel School, argued that Bush “left behind a legacy of human rights abuses, including the torture of detainees in extra-territorial jails, preemptive war, domestic surveillance programs, and other egregious actions that deleteriously impact the human condition.”
In her June 23 petition, which gathered 1,000 signatures on Change.org, she pointed out that an invitation posted on the DU website showed that Bush had been chosen to receive the Improving the Human Condition Award, also known as the humanitarian award.
That invitation was removed from the DU website shortly after the petition began gathering steam, but DU spokeswoman Kim DeVigil said the announcement was mistaken in that the humanitarian award is traditionally given to a local fundraiser, not a visiting dignitary.
In a statement Wednesday, she stressed his “remarkable work in Africa, both during his presidency and in his post-presidency.”
“His efforts fighting HIV/AIDS, cervical cancer and malaria continue to improve the human condition by addressing the needs of vast populations around the globe,” said DeVigil.
The flap over the award comes as Bush cautiously reenters public life after four years of avoiding the limelight after leaving office in January 2009. He made headlines in April with the unveiling of the George W. Bush Presidential Library at Southern Methodist University in Texas.
After four years of less-than-stellar approval ratings, a Gallup Poll released June 10 found that 49 percent of those surveyed gave him a favorable approval rating, up 14 points from his nadir in 2009, said Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli.
A member of the Korbel School’s Social Service Foundation Board, Ciruli said he fully supported honoring the former president, calling it a “huge coup” for the institution.
“It’s a huge honor for a school to have a presidential visit in itself, and obviously it has huge fundraising potential for the school,” said Ciruli. “In terms of his record, there are obviously still some controversial parts related to Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, but there are other parts that are universally praised.”
Bush has long won praise from AIDS activists, not his normal constituency, for his work in combating AIDS/HIV in Africa. His administration delivered an estimated $5 billion in aid through the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief and a companion anti-malaria drive.
Even President Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, lauded Bush for his philanthropic focus at the library dedication.
“Mr. President, let me say that I’m filled with admiration for you and deep gratitude for you about the great contributions you’ve made to the most needy people on Earth,” said Carter.
Republicans often draw protests when they appear on college campuses. When former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice received the Outstanding Alumni Award at the Korbel School dinner in 2010, some students held signs calling her a “war criminal.”
“He [Bush] has been a model ex-president,” said Ciruli. “From my point of view, the award is proper and incredibly prestigious for the school. And there will be some controversy, but the part they’re focused on is his work in Africa, and for that he’s received enormous praise.”
Petition signers include Kiela Parks, who said she worked on the 2011 and 2012 Korbel dinners as a staffer with the Office of Alumni and External Relations.
“That George W. Bush, who is known to have authorized torture and numerous other crimes against humanity, is being given an award for ‘improving the human condition’ is a sick, cruel joke,” said Parks in a post on Change.org. “It makes a mockery of this school and the degree I worked so hard to attain.”
The dean of the Korbel School, former Ambassador Christopher Hill, who served in the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations, defended the decision to honor Bush in an email to the faculty, calling the anticipated appearance an “honor” and “tremendous opportunity” for fundraising.
“We live in difficult times in which fundamental institutions such as the presidency are sometimes not respected or when even basic civility seems lacking,” said Mr. Hill. “I hope we can all rise to the occasion for this event involving a former president.”