The issue of honorary degrees became a rather hot topic this year in large part owing to Arizona State University's decision that Obama hadn't yet earned such an immense honor. It was not difficult to expose the hypocrisy of that decision by glancing at a list of previous ASU h-degree awardees.
In any case, some universities award honorary degrees and some do not. I have been occasionally aware of the general issue of honorary degrees when controversy arose at some university or another owing to the awarding of a degree to a controversial person (e.g. Oxford/Thatcher/1985; Yale/Bush/2001) or non-person (some school in the 1990's/Kermit the Frog) or owing to the rescission of an honorary degree to someone (e.g. Robert Mugabe) who may have besmirched the reputation of the awarding university after the awarding of the degree.
I was recently somewhat unwillingly involved in one stage of the selection process for honorary degrees at a particular university. Back in the days when I was completely -- rather than just mostly -- ignorant of the inner workings of the h-degree decision process, I'd have guessed that some BigName famous people who had done amazing things were routinely given these degrees by various universities around the world just as a way of saying "Our university community thinks you are great", even if the honoree didn't have any particular reason to care about that particular university. Mandela. Havel. Saramago. Hockney.
And I probably could also, if pressed, have guessed that some NotSoBigName people got these degrees as well, for being great at whatever it is they do, even if their names are not known to most people. Such persons might include the CEO of a successful but not galactically famous company, the inventor of a gizmo we cannot live without, the tireless proponent of a worthy cause, an artist of some-but-not-cosmic repute, the Secretary of Agriculture in the Ford Administration. Maybe these people would have an association with the awarding university, maybe they wouldn't.
In a cynical moment, I might also have predicted that some BigNames got them just for being famous. Queen Elizabeth comes to mind.
In another cynical moment, I might wonder if some BigDonors to a university might get such degrees as thanks for sharing their loot with the university, or at least with the athletic department ± a new biomed building or two, but that would be unworthy.
One category of potential awardee that has surprised me is the awarding of an honorary degree to someone who already has a PhD from the university that is considering giving them an honorary doctorate. What is the point of that? Don't most universities have Awesome Alumni/ae awards they could give out instead of an honorary degree to someone who already has a PhD from the same place? I can see giving an honorary degree to someone who has an undergrad or MS degree from the university, so maybe it's not so different to give someone an honorary degree even if they have a PhD from the university. Maybe not, but it still seems strange to me.
Maybe it would be less strange if the honorary degree were given for something unrelated to the PhD field; e.g. someone with a PhD in comparative literature who achieves greatness for work as a human rights campaigner.
In another situation with which I am familiar, a scientist was nominated for an h-degree on the basis of his semi-illustrious career in science. The nomination packet contained the scientist's Web of Science citation report, including his h-index. I wonder what the minimum h-index is for getting an h-degree.
1 year ago