Former ambassador given degree

Mohamed Benaissa was given an honorary Doctor of Laws degree.

by Emma Carew

During the past 82 years, the University has bestowed its highest honor – an honorary degree – to the likes of Madeline Albright and Stanley Hubbard.

Today, former Moroccan Ambassador to the United States and foreign minister Mohamed Benaissa joins the ranks of nationally renowned societal contributors, as well as famed local minds like Ada Comstock and Garrison Keillor.

Benaissa, a University alumnus, was nominated for the honorary Doctor of Laws degree by former associate vice president of international programs Gene Allen.

where to go

what: Minister Benaissa will give a lecture titled “The Missing Factors in International Relations” following the award ceremony.
when: 3:30 p.m., today
where: Cowles Auditorium, Humphrey Center

Allen said the depth of Benaissa’s contributions to his hometown of Asilah, Morocco and country on local, national and international levels was part of the inspiration for the minister’s nomination.

“This is an individual who did one thing after another,” Allen said of Benaissa.

“When he left as ambassador, there were 110 congressmen that created The Friends of Morocco,” he said. “Basically that was to acknowledge the significant role that Benaissa had played.”

The University’s ties to Morocco run much deeper than Benaissa alone.

In the 1980s, the college of agriculture worked with the U.S. Agency for International Development, Allen said, and created an exchange program that brought hundreds of Moroccan students to Minnesota to work on their graduate degrees.

Carol Engebretson Byrne, president of the Minnesota International Center, said in 2006, the center focused various programming on Morocco.

MIC had previously hosted Minister Benaissa during his time as ambassador in 1999, she said.

“He was just so pleased to be back in Minnesota,” Byrne said.

Even though he was scheduled to speak on the Moroccan economy, Benaissa gave a speech about how his experience at the University affected his world view and influenced the work he did as an ambassador, she said.

In the early 1960s, Benaissa was a Fulbright scholar studying at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

At the same time, Kofi Annan studied at Macalester and the two started the first African student association in Minnesota, Byrne said.

“Minister Benaissa was very proud to tell me that,” she said, “that he and Kofi Annan started their friendship in Minnesota.”

Honorary degree nominations are reviewed by the All University Honors Committee, Vickie Courtney, program director for University Awards and Honors said.

The 28-member committee makes a recommendation to the president, who then passes the recommendation to the Board of Regents for approval, she said.

“The honorary degree is the highest award that the University gives,” Courtney said.

Laura Gurak, chairwoman of the All University Honors Committee, said honorary degrees are given to “acknowledge the eminence of intellectual contributions” and all major research universities award them.

“A university is a place of knowledge creation,” she said. “We create knowledge, we invent ideas. (The honorary degree) is a way to recognize people who have made a contribution at a world level that universities tend to value.”

The University gives three types of honorary degrees, Courtney said: Doctor of Laws, for public service, Doctor of Science, for contributions to knowledge and Doctor of Humane Letters, for cultural contributions.

The first honorary degree was given in 1925, she said, and there have been 235 given since.