Campus Scenes

Degrees of Difficulty

Granting and withdrawing honorary degrees.

By 5.5.14

UPI
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It is graduation season. The time of year for caps and gowns, for cheers and tears, for joyous celebrations, for poignant class reunions… and, of course, for the awarding of hundreds of honorary degrees.

A friend is planning to be in New Haven later this spring to celebrate his 50th Yale reunion. He tells me that, as his class prepares to celebrate the half century since their 1964 graduation, a classmate is circulating a petition demanding that the University withdraw an honorary degree it awarded in 1996 to a Swiss billionaire whom an Italian court has recently convicted and sentenced to 18 years in prison for criminal activities and negligence resulting in the deaths of 2,000 people from asbestos disease.

The Yale grad’s petition raises a host of questions. Are there legitimate precedents for universities withdrawing such degrees in light of (then) unknown circumstances in a recipient’s past? Surely there are many others who received such honors who have proven to be equally unsavory.

Even if these individuals were “worthy” when honored, how should the university deal with their future actions? For instance, if he/she is found guilty later of a crime, how heinous need it be for the honor to be withdrawn?

If honorary degrees become conditional over time, who should be the arbiter of the definition of a sufficiently “heinous” crime warranting the withdrawal of the honor? Should universities establish standing Honorary Degree Committees to closely monitor the future activities of recipients of honorary degrees to ensure that their ongoing conduct is consistent with the award of that high honor?

Other than taking an action consistent with the university’s “core values” to appease some guilty consciences, what other possible benefit accrues to a university from withdrawal of an honorary degree for “conduct unbecoming”? 

Honorary degrees come and go with the graduation season and most classmates would likely be unable to identify any of the those who were awarded honorary degrees when they graduated. Graduates in their caps and gowns are more focused on celebrating the degree they earned and matters more personal (upcoming careers and job opportunities) than the award of an honorary degree to a prominent elected official, former president, or Hollywood celebrity.

To be sure, most colleges and universities have detailed procedures and criteria for the awarding of their honorary doctorates. They establish special committees (which may include student and faculty representatives in addition to individual trustees) to vet candidates and make recommendations to the institution’s board of trustees who vote on honorary degrees to be awarded at commencement.

In their deliberations the trustees are guided by specific criteria for granting the honorary awards. These standards typically range from iteration of broad and vague ideals to exceptionally specific directives. 

For example, one university broadly suggests that awardees should demonstrate “genuine achievement and distinction in an activity consonant with the mission of the university,” but elsewhere cautions that “accomplishments such as holding public office, acts of philanthropy, receiving popular acclaim, service to the university or to another educational institution will be regarded as not in themselves sufficient reason for consideration.”

Despite these kinds of restrictive standards, over the years some institutions of higher education have made some astonishingly bizarre awards of honorary doctorate degrees. For example, in 1989 Central Ohio State University awarded heavyweight boxing champion and convicted felon Mike Tyson an honorary Doctorate in Humane Letters. Humane Letters?! That may have been the first time the name Tyson and the word humane were ever used in the same sentence.

Similarly, Robert Mugabe, the president of Zimbabwe, was awarded honorary degrees by the University of Massachusetts at Amherst (1986) and Michigan State University (1990) for his role in the country achieving independence in 1979 and ending white rule. The ruthless dictator is no longer an honorary doctor as his degrees have since been revoked due to accusations that he engaged in ethnic cleansing and was responsible for the collapse of his country’s economy.

Later this spring, rapper and music producer Sean Combs (aka P. Diddy or more recently Puff Daddy), who left Howard University in 1990 after only two years to pursue his dreams of music stardom, is scheduled to deliver the school’s commencement address and will receive an honorary PhD in humanities. In announcing the award, Howard’s president commented that the award to Puff Daddy “continues the tradition of identifying leaders whose work has clearly contributed to the advancement of their fields and the world”. 

Finally, in a truly bizarre example of an honorary degree, the popular Muppet Kermit the Frog was awarded a Doctor of Amphibious Letters in 1996 from Long Island University. In his acceptance speech, Kermit did raise a serious topic, telling the audience that when they are saving the environment, they are saving the homes of many of his relatives.

It may be too cynical to observe that rather than rewarding excellence, the award of honorary degrees seems increasingly designed to achieve other, far less noble objectives: landing a prominent keynote speaker without paying his/her normal $300,000 fee; honoring a multi-billionaire philanthropist in the hopes that he/she will bless the university with a new dormitory or microbiology lab; capturing headlines with a celebrity speaker who will draw attention nationwide and enhance the image of the university.

Thorough research and careful vetting of candidates for honorary degrees is essential. While the initial decision making process for honorary degrees lies with college or university officials and trustees, it remains the responsibility of constituents of the broader college or university community—faculty, students, alumni, and parents—to hold them accountable for the wise execution of this extraordinary power.

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About the Author

Gerald D. Skoning is a Chicago lawyer who specializes in labor and employment law.