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Elder Obama denied Harvard PhD

Documents reveal university’s role in president’s father’s life

Kenya native Barack Hussein Obama never lived up to his early promise. Kenya native Barack Hussein Obama never lived up to his early promise.
By Sally Jacobs
Globe Staff / April 29, 2011

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Throughout a tumultuous career as an economist in Nairobi in the 1960s, Barack Hussein Obama, President Obama’s father, claimed to have earned a PhD from Harvard University. But according to federal immigration records, Obama was forced to leave the school by administrators alarmed at his freewheeling personal life and financial difficulties.

In a May 1964 memo contained in the elder Obama’s Immigration and Naturalization Service file, an immigration inspector noted that Obama had passed his exams and was entitled to stay and complete the requirements for a PhD in economics. But Harvard administrators, including the chairman of the economics department, “are going to try and cook something up to ease him out.’’

Not long afterward, Harvard asked the INS to hold up on Obama’s routine request for an extension of his stay, according to a June memo signed by immigration inspector M.F.McKeon. School administrators, the memo continued, “were having difficulty with his financial arrangements and couldn’t seem to figure out how many wives he had.’’

Although Harvard had previously assured the INS that Obama could continue his degree program, David D. Henry, then the director of the university’s international office, abruptly advised him in a May let ter that he had three weeks to make the necessary preparations to return to Nairobi. Despite his vigorous protest, Obama was compelled to leave the country in July.

For Obama, then 28 and widely expected to be a key player back in his native Kenya, which had attained independence the year before, Harvard’s decision was disastrous. Lacking the degree for which he so yearned, he embarked on an erratic career path and never lived up to his early promise. The INS documents, released to this reporter through a Freedom Of Information Act request in 2009 in the course of research on a biography of the elder Obama to be released in July, reveal Harvard’s crucial role in the tumultuous course of the president’s father’s life. The documents were made public Wednesday by the weekly newspaper, The Arizona Independent.

Harvard’s press office yesterday released a statement saying that a review of its files, “did not find any support for either the language or the implied intent described by the USgovernment official in the government documents.’’ The statement also said that in years pre-dating the INS documents its Center For International Affairs faced serious constraints in providing financial support for research done by international graduate students.

Harvard’s action was the culmination of long simmering concern among US immigration and academic officials regarding Obama’s personal life. Raised in rural poverty near Lake Victoria in western Kenya, Obama was a highly talented student and one of an elite group of young Kenyans who were educated in the United States in the late 1950s and early 1960s in preparation for their country’s achievement of independence. In spring 1961, during Obama’s second year as an undergraduate at the University of Hawaii, Sumi McCabe, the school’s foreign student adviser, raised the first questions about Obama’s marital status.

In April 1961, McCabe called immigration officials and expressed concern that Obama had recently married a young woman named Stanley Ann Dunham — who would become president Obama’s mother. She was concerned because Obama already had a wife back in Kenya, according to a memo written by Lyle H. Dahling, an administrator in INS’s Honolulu office. What’s more, McCabe told the INS office that Obama, “has been running around with several girls since he first arrived here and last summer she cautioned him about his playboy ways. [Obama] replied that he would ‘try’ to stay away from the girls,’’ according to the memo.

Neither McCabe nor Dahling knew quite what to think about Obama’s womanizing. Obama is a member of one of Kenya’s ethnic group’s known as the Luo, among whom polygamy is common. Obama told McCabe that in Kenya, “all that is necessary to be divorced is to tell the wife that she is divorced . . . [Obama] claims to have been divorced from his wife in Kenya in this method,’’ according to the memo.

But Obama was not divorced at all, according to his first wife, who was living in Kenya with their two children at the time he married Dunham in February 1961. Grace Kezia Obama, now 70, lives in Bracknell, England, and maintains that she remained married to the elder Obama until his death in 1982.

INS officials considered whether Obama could be deported if he were convicted of bigamy, but decided against it. Instead, they decided that Obama “should be closely questioned before another extension is granted — and denial be considered.’’

Just weeks after Dunham gave birth in August 1961 to Barack Obama II, her marriage to the elder Obama had apparently begun to fray. By the end of the month, she was living with her baby and her parents while Obama was living by himself in another part of town, according to a handwritten memo in the INS file. In the fall of 1962, Obama headed to Harvard to pursue a PhD in economics, leaving his small family behind.

Not long after he arrived in Cambridge, authorities were once again focused on his dating habits. This time Obama was apparently dating a high school student from Kenya who had taken an unauthorized trip to London. Immigration officials observing their relationship noted that, “Obama is considered by [redacted] to be a slippery character,’’ according to a January 1964 memo by immigration inspector K.D. MacDonald.

Immigration officials’ conversations with Harvard’s international office provided little clarity about Obama’s marital situation. “Harvard thinks he’s married to someone in Kenya and someone in Honolulu, but that possibly he belongs to a tribe where multiple marriages are OK,’’ according to a April 1964 memo.

Henry, the director of the school’s international office, told INS officials he would talk to Obama about his “marital situation.’’ One month later, he wrote Obama a crisp letter informing him that although he had completed his course work and passed his exams, “neither the department of economics nor the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences has any further funds to support you in Cambridge,’’ according to a copy of the letter in the INS file.

Obama struggled mightily to reverse the decision. He repeatedly called the INS office and asked for an explanation of what had happened but was told that the decision was “final,’’ according to an INS memo. In July, he boarded a plane to Nairobi and in 1965 Harvard awarded him a master’s degree in economics.

Although Obama frequently claimed to have earned a PhD from Harvard in the years to come and insisted he be called Dr. Obama, he never fully recovered from disappointment over his failure to get the degree he had worked so hard for. Let go from jobs at both the Central Bank of Kenya and the Kenya Tourist Development Corp. by 1970, Obama was unemployed for four years before he landed a low level economist’s position at the Ministry of Finance and Planning. He remained there until his death.

Obama’s PhD thesis, “An Econometric Model of Staple Theory of Development,’’ which was launched with such high hopes at Harvard, apparently met an unhappy fate as well. Not long after he married his third wife, Ruth Ndesandjo, in 1964, Obama said his thesis papers had been stolen by burglars who had broken into their home.

“The burglars took the television, but in the process Barack said that they took his doctoral papers, which were in a briefcase somewhere,’’ said Ndesandjo, who lives in Nairobi. “At least, that is what he said. He was pretty upset about it because he never went back to it and he didn’t have any copy of it.’’

Sally Jacobs, a member of the Globe staff, is the author of “The Other Barack, The Bold and Reckless Life of President Obama’s Father,’’ to be published in July.