Divestment for Humanity: The Anti-Apartheid Movement at the University of Michigan

Nelson Mandela's Honorary Degree


Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg in May 2008.

Mandela is nominated for

an honorary degree.

The first attempt for an honorary degree for Nelson Mandela began in 1985. The increasing number of racist incidents pushed student leaders at the University of Michigan to demand that the administration improve the racial climate on campus. In October of 1985, Professor Tom Holt, the Director of the Center for Afroamerican and African Studies, received the guidelines for an honorary degree, which did not require the recipient to attend the ceremony. Professor Holt decided to nominate Nelson Mandela the following month for Mandela's dedication to abolishing the apartheid system, for which he had been imprisoned for 23 years. From November 1985 until April 1986, letters from state and national officials poured in along with the signatures of over 2,000 students, faculty, and staff, which were then presented to the Regents and administration to send to the Honorary Degrees Committee. In March 1986, however, the FSACC found that the letters of support and petitions had not reached the Committee.

UM denies Mandela's degree.

Stunned by this development, on April 4, 1986 five hundred protesters marched together to protest racism in South Africa and at the University of Michigan. Fifteen to twenty students visited President Shapiro and the Vice-President Kennedy's offices asking for information about Mandela's nomination, to which the administration repeatedly replied, "No Comment". Soon after President Shapiro issued a statement on April 10, stating that certain nominees were "ineligible because they are unable to accept a degree in person". The next day, Vice-President Kennedy stated that "no decision has been made concerning the honorary degree for Mandela," but hours later he revealed to the protestors that Mandela would not be nominated for a degree. Because of the large number of supporters and interest in the outcome, Kennedy agreed to contact President Shapiro to supply the FSACC with a written response to their request of reconvening the Committee to reconsider the nomination, ask the Regents to suspend the bylaw requiring attendance, and to change the bylaws removing the attendance requirement. President Shapiro refuses the requests on April 12, and the shantytown built on the diag is burned and partially demolished. In protest to the Regent's decision to not award an honorary degree to Nelson Mandela, student leaders from the Free South Africa Coordinating Coalition, Black Student Union, and Michigan Student Assembly joined together on April 17-18 to hold a mass rally at the Regents meeting followed by an overnight sit-in of the Fleming Administration Building. The Regents decided to review the bylaws, but ultimately determined not to award the degree.

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Mandela finally awarded degree.

On March 4, 1987, UCAR assembled 200 students on the Michigan Diag and marched to the Fleming Administrative Building to meet provost James J. Duderstadt. Angered by continous racist incidences, the students told Duderstadt he had two weeks to answer their demands, one of which was the bestowing of an honorary degree for Nelson Mandela. Tensions on campus continued to increase and on March 18th, BAM III was founded. The next day BAM III protestors blockaded the Michigan Union as UCAR members entered the Fleming Administration Building for a sit-in. The Regents meeting that was to take place on March 19 was moved to the Michigan Leaague to accomodate the large crowds and during the meeting, the Regents voted in favor of giving Nelson Mandela an honorary degree.

FSACC and WCCAA celebrate

Mandela's release.

At the time, Nelson Mandela was still imprisoned in South Africa and was unable to participate in the ceremony. However, three short years later, Mandela was released from South Africa and came to Detroit to visit Tiger Stadium and receive his degree. To celebrate his release and raise awareness for his visit to Detroit, the FSACC and WCCAA joined together to hold a rally on June 28, 1990.

Sources for this page:

The Ann Arbor News, March 5, 1987, p.A1.

The Detroit Free Press, March 20, 1987, p. 18A.

Free Southern African Committee and Washtenaw County Coalition Against Apartheid, Mandela Freedom Rally Flyer, February 11, 1990, South Africa Divestment, Teach-Ins, Vertical Files, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan.

"Mandela granted degree". The Michigan Daily. March 20, 1987. 

Picture of Nelson Mandela. Creative Commons. May 2008.

Karen Schneider, "Racist incidents are up, U-M black leaders charge," The Detroit Free Press, November 20, 1986, p. 11A.

"U-M denies Mandela honorary degree". Agenda. May 1986.

The University Record, March 9, 1987, p.5.