From where I sit - A little tarnish on the title

December 6, 2012

Honorary professorships can be controversial because they are sometimes awarded to individuals who have made large donations or who can serve marketing and promotional purposes, and also because they can mislead people who do not understand the difference between these titles and the usual research-based ones. In Germany, the issue has flared up, probably as a result of the recent spate of plagiarism scandals.

The broadcaster and media personality Ulrich Wickert has an honorary professorship, as does the entertainer and musician Gotz Alsmann and the theologian Margot Kassmann. (Interestingly, Dr Alsmann does hold a "real" doctorate in the field of music.)

These degrees often entail more than just honouring an individual. Recipients of honorary professorships in Germany are often expected to do some teaching in return for their award. But some of those honoured have little in terms of academic achievements. Especially when no teaching is involved, the allegation is that universities attempt to raise their status (or funding) with famous names, who receive a title in return. This sounds rather like a trade exchange, which does not conform to the traditional objectives of honorary doctorates.

When recipients are required to teach, the teaching may not be pedagogically sound. Even if students benefit from experts sharing their experience, it can be argued that universities are there for more serious stuff. Thus, Dr Alsmann's musical lectures - which involve popular tunes played on the accordion - have raised a few eyebrows.

Der Spiegel cites the author and television presenter Claus-Erich Boetzkes as a positive example of an honorary professor, one who gives seminars and grades exams.

Given that in many cases, these professors should, strictly speaking, have clear teaching requirements, there is criticism of the downgrading of honorary professorships. But there are others who do no teaching and who may lack any academic credentials.

The publisher Alfred Neven DuMont is regarded by many as a questionable case. At 74, he was awarded an honorary professorship by the Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg, with no teaching required. The main reason for the award was DuMont's services as the owner of the Mitteldeutsche Zeitung, a regional newspaper that reports frequently and enthusiastically about the university.

The comments made by various readers of a recent Spiegel article on the subject shed more light on the broader issues.

For example, "Brotfessor" laments that too many universities are "hot for publicity", questions the value of Dr Alsmann's academic contributions and wonders whether the university rector is confusing lectures with talk shows. All this, he says, trivialises university teaching and reduces it to the level of popular television education. Good lecturing, after all, is hard to do and to absorb. Brotfessor further points out that at some "real" universities, the title "university professor" is used to stress that these office holders are not of the showbiz type.

"Fischmops" notes that teaching need not be dull and humourless, but asserts that it does not justify abandoning a serious academic approach. He has nothing against outside experts sharing their knowledge at universities, but he does object to their being given academic titles in exchange.

Finally, Rainer Daeschler makes a suggestion that should amuse British readers. He proposes that Germany join the Commonwealth so that the Queen can make all these "title junkies" into knights, thus leaving universities in peace and removing the temptation to deal in titles.

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