New Trier Alumni, Students Enraged at Rumsfeld's Honor
Alumni and current students have circulated petitions calling for the school to rescind the honor while the school sticks to their list.
New Trier Township High School officials are encouraging alumni and students to look at the big picture when it comes to evaluating the careers of its alumni honorees.
Since New Trier announced the first group of alumni honorees for its new Hall of Honor Dec. 1, many New Trier alumni have expressed anger, frustration and disagreement at the inclusion of former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Hundreds have signed online petitions calling for Rumsfeld's removal from the list. Michelle Komie, a 1993 graduate, began an online petition with friends from New Trier because the news was "stunning," she said.
"The alumni whom I know and am in touch with are extraordinary people and have done everything from managing needle exchange programs in Chicago [to] founding charter schools in Boston," said Komie, a senior editor at Yale University Press. "New Trier is a wonderful place and everyone I know was simply flabbergasted and stunned by the announcement that Donald Rumsfeld was included in the first batch of honorees."
About 90 nominations were considered and a committee made up of alumni, staff members, New Trier Educational Foundation members and a current student chose the first 10 honorees. Committee members who reviewed the nominations "put their political opinions aside" to make final selections, according to Nicole Dizon, director of communications and alumni relations for New Trier.
"We did anticipate that some of the nominees might generate some talk in the community, but we felt strongly that all of them had records of service be it to charity or their country that were reflective of the values that we put forth when we created this award," Dizon told Patch, citing a charitable foundation Rumsfeld and his wife run. "The selection committee felt that this service to his country, despite certainly the political controversy that surrounds Mr. Rumsfeld, made him someone that we'd want to honor."
Rumsfeld served two stints as Secretary of Defense and was White House Chief of Staff under President Gerald Ford. He was a congressman representing Illinois' 13th district and has served in numerous other roles. He and his wife maintain a foundation that awards fellowships to Central Asian students and leaders and support veterans through other charities.
The other honorees are: Todd Golub '81, Anna Halprin '38, Sam Harris '54, Christie Hefner '70, Arthur C. Nielsen Jr. '37, Jack Steinberger '38, Geoffrey Tabin '74, Richard Williamson '67 and Rainn Wilson '84. See the attached PDF for a list of biographies.
Meanwhile Komie, along with Chad Higdon-Topaz and Tim Yu, put up a Facebook page ("New Trier Alumni Against Rumsfeld's 'Achievement Award'") and started separate petitions for alumni and community members. Another online petition is on change.org. They wrote to district officials, local media outlets and the Rachel Maddow show, Komie said.
"Generally, we're waiting for New Trier to respond," Komie said.
Chad Higdon-Topaz, a 1992 graduate and professor at Macalester College, attempted to contact all of the other New Trier honorees to ask them to refuse the award, he wrote in an email. Higdon-Topaz said he received a note from Anna Halprin, a modern dancer and choreographer, that said she was "shocked" and agreed with the opposition to Rumsfeld's honor.
Mitch Stein, a 1982 graduate and film producer, also wrote a letter to the district and posted the text on his Facebook page. After, he received emails in response from his fellow alumni, expressing their support and pledging to write letters of their own, he said. In his letter, Stein wrote, "New Trier's motto is 'to commit minds to inquiry, hearts to compassion, and lives to the service of humanity.' Donald Rumsfeld is an affront to everything contained in that motto."
"I used the word 'affront' because I believe that it is," Stein said in an interview with Patch. "When there is evidence of war crimes and the intent to skirt the Constitution for personal gain, there's nothing about that that represents what New Trier stands for."
Stein also questioned how other honorees would feel receiving the same recognition as Rumsfeld.
"I asked in my letter, 'how do you think Richard Williamson feels spending his career fighting war crimes and crimes against humanity to be on the same list as Donald Rumsfeld?'" Stein said.
In addition to past New Trier students, some of today's Trevians are similarly upset. Jeremy Levine-Drizin, senior class president, circulated a petition for current students and met last week with Dr. Linda Yonke, District 203 superintendant, he said.
"I think they hadn't received any complaints from current students," Levine-Drizin. After collecting more than one hundred signatures before his meeting with Yonke, Levine-Drizin said he and his friends put the breaks on the petition.
"It seemed to me that they weren't going to rescind the invitation, regardless of public opinion," he said.
"She said a lot of people were angry because it had turned into a political issue and I was trying to tell her that it's a moral issue."
Levine-Drizin said he plans to resume collecting signatures despite the outlook and alumni continue to sign the petitions. He spoke Monday night during public comment at the New Trier Board of Education meeting. At the end of the comments, Board President Wendy Serrino said she would pass on the message to the appropriate people, since the alumni honorees were chosen by a committee.
"We're not trying to determine here whether Donald Rumsfeld is a war criminal here," Komie said. "There are other people working on that. I'm speaking as someone who loved my education and experience at New Trier. This doesn't make sense and it's inappropriate."
Aside from the Rumsfeld naysayers, there's also been discussion of alums who may have been overlooked, like former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel.
"New Trier is just so lucky to have such a huge group of extraordinary alumni to choose from that you can't possibly honor every worthy person in the first year." Dizon said, "We have 75,000 alums to choose from—we know we're going have stellar pool every year."
An awards dinner hosted by the New Trier Educational Foundation and District 203 will be held March 22 at the Sunset Ridge Country Club.