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Grinnellians ask the College to rescind Rep. Tom Cole’s honorary degree after he objects to Biden’s victory

Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma objected to Joe Bidens presidential victory. Now, after Grinnellians asked the College to revoke his honorary degree, he voluntarily relinquished it. Photo contributed by the U.S. House of Representatives.
Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma objected to Joe Biden’s presidential victory. Now, after Grinnellians asked the College to revoke his honorary degree, he voluntarily relinquished it. Photo contributed by the U.S. House of Representatives.

Grinnell College community members are asking the College to rescind Rep. Tom Cole’s ’71 honorary degree after he objected to the certification of President-Elect Joe Biden’s victory on Wednesday.

The Oklahoma representative, who was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws by the College in 2016, was one of 139 House Republicans and eight Republican Senators to object to Biden’s victory, a futile attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election that has been condemned by Republicans and Democrats alike.

Nat Jordan ’21, who has spearheaded the effort to rescind Cole’s honorary degree, called Cole’s vote “fundamentally ungrinnellian.”

“It’s a slap in the face to JB Grinnells legacy, and it’s brought dishonor to the entire community of Grinnell,” he said.

A petition circulated by Jordan has been signed by 1,690 people as of Jan. 10.

Republicans’ objection to Biden’s victory, which they maintain was about concerns of voter fraud, was part of a last-ditch attempt by President Donald Trump and his supporters to overturn the results of the election, a months-long effort that involved countless unsubstantiated claims and summarily dismissed lawsuits. The effort culminated on Wednesday, when a group of violent Trump supporters, many of whom were brandishing confederate flags and other white supremacist iconography, stormed the Capitol building and forced legislators to seek shelter, temporarily stopping the certification of Biden’s victory.

In the aftermath of the insurrection, five people are dead and many more are wounded. Those who objected to certifying Biden’s Electoral College victory have been blamed for tacitly encouraging those who broke into the Capitol building, and Trump himself may face legal repercussions for inciting the violence.

Cole, who was elected to a tenth term representing Oklahoma’s 4th District with 68% of the vote in November, released a statement condemning the violence. But he still objected to Biden’s victory in the states of Arizona and Pennsylvania once lawmakers returned.

Cole said in a press release prior to the riot that his constituents were “concerned about fairness and transparency” in other states’ election processes and that he would “express their concerns with my vote on the floor today.” There is no evidence of widespread fraud in any states’ elections.

Cole’s office did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

Jordan dismissed the argument that Cole was simply representing the concerns of his constituents, arguing that Cole swore an oath to uphold the constitution, not to cater to the unfounded concerns of his voters. “The U.S. is a representative democracy for a reason, because the masses can be misinformed, and clearly are misinformed,” said Jordan. “He knows as well as you and I do that the allegations of voter fraud are simply false.”

Jordan notes that in Cole’s speech accepting his honorary degree he told graduates they should look for leaders who prize pragmatism and traditionalism, as well someone who “believes in the institutions of the country, who believes in fair play, who believes in open elections, who believes in the public process.

Reading that speech the morning after Cole’s vote, Jordan said his jaw dropped.

“If Representative Cole really believes in that image of what a leader should be, then he should resign along with the other Republican congresspeople who voted to disregard the popular will of the people in this country,” Jordan said.

Cole, one of only a handful of Native Americans in Congress, was given his honorary degree in 2016. Before running for Congress, Cole served as an Oklahoma state senator, as chair of the Oklahoma Republican Party and as Oklahoma Secretary of State. In Congress, he served as the chairman of the National Republican Campaign Committee during the 2008 cycle.

According to the Grinnell College Faculty Handbook, honorary degrees “recognize and thereby encourage a standard of excellence, which is exemplary to the students for the conduct of their lives” and “promote the reputation of the College as an institution which recognizes and promotes such excellence.”

Honorary degree nominations are recommended by the Grinnell College faculty and approved by the Board of Trustees. There is no established process at Grinnell for rescinding an honorary degree, but other colleges have done it before.

In the wake of high-profile sexual assault cases, figures like Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein were stripped of their honorary degrees. And on Friday, Lehigh University rescinded an honorary degree given to Trump in 1988.

In an email to students, President Anne Harris condemned the violence at the Capitol. “Democracy is anything but a static and assured state and we were starkly reminded today of how it can be fractured, and of how much effort and commitment is needed to sustain it,” she wrote, adding, “the work of Grinnell College is the work of democracy.”

Harris has not addressed the petition publicly, but she told The S&B that she was aware of the petition and that she would be researching the issue alongside other groups on campus. She cautioned, however, that any decision the College makes will take time, as it will set precedent for future decisions. 

For Jordan, in order for the College to uphold the values articulated in Harris’ email, it must rescind Cole’s honorary degree. “I think that it’s a necessary step for the College if they do truly believe that our core value as Grinnellians is democracy,” he said.


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    BillJan 11, 2021 at 10:56 am

    Tom Cole for President!