Dr. Amos C. Sawyer, former Interim President of Liberia and the immediate past Chairman of the Governance Commission was on Saturday May 5, 2018 one of few distinguished personalities awarded honorary doctorate degrees by Indiana University (IU), a leading public research university in the United States.
In his address to a mammoth crowd including the chairperson and members of the University’s Trustees, past and current US and state congressional members, professors and professor emeriti, family members and friends of graduates at the 189th Commencement Convocations in Bloomington, Indiana, IU’s President Dr. Michael A. McRobbie said that the Honorary Degree is the highest academic recognition Indiana University can bestow and therefore individuals who receive the degrees from the University must have made significant contributions to society, serving as models for current and future generations and have demonstrated in their life and in their work, the highest standards of excellence in their fields of endeavor whether in scholarship or creative activity; professional development and achievement; or public service to the world, the nation, the state, or the community. Dr. McRobbie very passionately observed that it is a privilege for Indiana University to count such distinguished individuals as honorary alumni.
According to sources at the University and other distinguished academics, the identification and vetting processes of prospective candidates for such prestigious awards are vigorous and subject to intense scrutiny. Dr. Sawyer convincingly passed that scrutiny as evidenced by IU’s findings in its statement published in its official records, quoted verbatim below.
“There is, perhaps, no living person on the African continent who better exemplifies dedication to the democratic process than Dr. Amos C. Sawyer. He has taught numerous courses on the subject at the University of Liberia, written eloquently in several books, numerous articles, and spent nearly a decade at the Ostrom Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis on the Indiana University Bloomington campus, collaborating with Elinor and Vincent Ostrom.” These words, from Professor Emerita Ruth Stone of the IU Bloomington Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology, are great praise, but they cover only some of Sawyer’s accomplishments. Originally a professor, then a dean, at the University of Liberia, Sawyer earned degrees in political science and government from the University of Liberia and Northwestern University.
After a military takeover in Liberia in the 1980s, Sawyer headed the National Constitution Commission, charged with drafting a new constitution as the country transitioned to a democracy. He spoke out against military pressure on the commission’s work and was imprisoned; he was forced to leave Liberia after his release. Exile would prove to be a period of growth for Sawyer, during which he spent much of his time at Indiana University as a research scientist, and later as a Company-director, as the Ostrom Workshop.
In addition to preparing his first major book, The Emergence of Autocracy in Liberia: Tragedy and Challenges, while there, “both Vincent and Elinor Ostrom developed a special affection and respect for Amos,” says Michael McGinnis, associate dean for Social and Historical Sciences and Graduate Education in the College of Arts and Sciences. “They gave him an open invitation to return to Bloomington whenever he had the chance.” According to former U.S. Representative and IU faculty member Lee Hamilton, Sawyer “was instrumentally involved in the creation and nurturing of the Liberian Collections at Indiana University’s Wells Library.”
While teaching at Indiana University during this time, Sawyer impressed some of his Liberian students deeply, such as recent graduate of IU Maurer School of Law Jallah Barbu. Barbu, now a research scholar at the Maurer School’s Center for Constitutional Democracy, says this of Sawyer: “His humility, respect for the views of others, and calm, yet incisive approach to resolving problems have enlightened many of us young Liberian professionals, inspiring us to pursue excellence.”
Sawyer returned to Liberia in 1990, having been asked by the Interim Government of National Unity to serve as president of the country. For four years he led the government, stepping down in 1994. He has remained active in Liberian politics as a member of several organizations that are pro-democracy and work to guide the country’s leadership.
He has served as chairperson of the Panel of Eminent Persons, which oversees the quality of governance in all member countries of the African Union, and he was asked by Liberia’s 24th president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, to become chair of the Governance Commission of Liberia. This organization, charged with creating reform policies and implementing strategies for good governance in the country, is representative of the work that Sawyer has been doing to guide Liberian government along the path of democracy.
In 2011, President Sirleaf awarded him the Grand Cordon of the Knighthood of the Most Venerable Order of the Pioneers, Liberia’s highest distinction. Sawyer is also a recipient of the Gusi Peace Prize, awarded by the Gusi Peace Prize Foundation in the Philippines, in recognition of his contributions to global peace and progress.
According to McGinnis, Sawyer “is the most honest, modest, and decent person I have ever met. He is smart, considerate, and his sense of justice is strong and unwavering.” The former IU scholar and leader of a developing African democracy has, McGinnis says, “a unique understanding of the capabilities of communities around the world to successfully govern themselves, as well as the practical challenges they face in doing so.”
Presenting Dr. Sawyer to President McRobbie to be awarded the prestigious Doctorate of Humane Letters degree, Associate Dean McGinnis recounted several achievements of Dr. Sawyer’s and asserted that it was most appropriate for Indiana University to award to such very deserving individual its highest academic award.
Speaking to university authorities, colleagues, family and friends from Liberia, various parts of the US and other parts of the world at the reception following the award ceremonies, Dr. Sawyer thanked the IU family for the honor and noted that it is also an honor for his country Liberia. He promised to continue to work for justice, democracy and human capacity development and to uphold the honor and confidence reposed in him by Indiana University.
IU awarded its first Honorary Doctorate Degree, the Doctor of Divinity, 14 years after it was established, to William Henry ibn 1834 and has since made this a tradition of the University. However, the honorary degree award tradition started in the late 1470s when Oxford University awarded to Lionel Woodville the Doctor of Canon Law, and later in 1692, Harvard University presented, as the first American college to undertake this venture, Increase Mather with the Doctor of Sacred Theology.
Dr. Sawyer is expected to return to Liberia shortly where, according to credible sources, a profound reception awaits him to celebrate the accolade he brings to the oldest independent African nation where education remains amongst the least funded sectors of government.