Honorary doctorates are no Muppet show

Some awards are unfortunate, but abolishing this time-honoured practice would throw out the baby with the bathwater, says Richard Willis

February 21, 2019
Kermit the Frog
Source: iStock

When Kermit the Frog was awarded an honorary doctorate of amphibious letters by Southampton College, New York, in 1986, much hilarity ensued. While the Muppets have genuinely had a deep influence on American culture, the accolade was also interpreted as a satirical confirmation that the honorary doctorate had become a bit of a joke.

But while it is true that honorary doctors have not shed the blood, sweat and tears that standard PhD holders have, let us not be too hasty in dismissing the time-honoured practice of recognising successful, enterprising and well-connected people beyond academia.

The first honorary degree was awarded by the University of Oxford in the 1470s to Lionel Woodville, dean of Exeter and bishop of Salisbury, who became a doctor of canon law and went on to become Oxford’s chancellor. In the US, the first “unearned” doctorate was awarded in 1692, with the first woman honoured in 1821.

In more modern times, the awarding of honorary doctorates has grown exponentially, and the list of recipients is impressive. It includes Mother Teresa, J. K. Rowling and Oprah Winfrey, to name but three. Critics carp that awarding honorary doctorates is all about courting publicity for the university, or else rewarding donors. But what is wrong with wanting publicity? And surely Bill Gates, a Harvard University dropout, deserves his award from his alma mater regardless of how much money he has donated (money that, incidentally, is no doubt put to good academic purpose).

Of course, the publicity associated with honorary doctorates can backfire when the awardee goes on to do something shameful. A case in point is Bill Cosby, the US comedian recently jailed for sexual assault. A number of his almost 60 honorary degrees are now in the process of being rescinded by, among other institutions, Johns Hopkins University and Cosby’s alma mater, Temple University.

Similarly, the former Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe was stripped of an honorary degree by the University of Massachusetts in 2008 on the grounds that his leadership was an affront to human rights. But the fact that there is a mechanism in place for such revocations should calm concerns about the ill effects of errant honorary doctorates.

Perhaps of greater concern is the criticism that there is a very weak link between success in financial terms and academic or cultural merit. For example, did Simon Fuller deserve the honorary degree that he received from the University of Brighton in 2014 for his management of the likes of the Spice Girls and David Beckham? Can it be right that singer Ed Sheeran, who quit school at 16, was awarded an honorary degree by the University of Suffolk in 2015, at the age of just 24, for his “outstanding contribution to music”?  

Nothing should detract from the dedication, self-discipline and sacrifice of traditional PhD students as they spend years of their lives composing 90,000 words of dense, properly referenced prose. And while universities rightly make clear to holders of honorary doctorates that they should not use the title “Dr” or the postnominals of the degree-awarding university, there is probably a strong case for confining awards to those who have achieved success in what could meaningfully described as educational or cultural activities.

But there is nothing wrong with giving distinguished professionals in those fields a formal accolade for outstanding achievement – which can further enhance their careers. Honorary doctorates are as much a part of the social fabric of the UK and the US as the Chelsea Flower Show and the Kentucky Derby. Whether the award goes to a medieval bishop with designs on high university office or a 20th-century puppet struggling to come to terms with its greenness, the practice embellishes academic life and engenders a sense of goodwill and general bonhomie. And, goodness knows that the academy could do with more of that.

Richard Willis is a British historian at the Institute of Historical Research in the School of Advanced Study, University of London. He was awarded a PhD in 2010, and a higher doctorate in 2018.

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: A case for honoris causa

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Reader's comments (1)

Despite having listened to several interesting acceptance speeches at graduations over the years, I would still do away with honorary degrees. They belong to the same category for me as the main "honours" system and any other type of patronage, having no place in a modern, allegedly meritocratic, free-market economy.

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