Thursday, June 11, 2009


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.


EliRabett said...

Graduation is a ceremony for the parents and graduates. To the extent that someone gives them a happy feeling that their college/university is important it increases the happiness of the audience and thus the possibility that they will retain a connection with the institution, and maybe, just maybe, give a few $ to the beggar at the gate. Thus it makes perfect sense to honor alumni with PhDs, etc.

average professor said...

I, too, find it very weird that somebody would be considered for an honorary doctorate from a place where they received an ACTUAL doctorate.

If I were that somebody, maybe in the back of my mind I would worry that from then on, if & when my name was mentioned in popular media, they would say I had an h-doctorate from so&so, which to me is less credible than the real thing that I also had.

Anonymous said...

It is tacky to mention citation counts and h-indexes unless they are positively out of this world, like top three in their entire field.

The committee making the assesment will look those figures up regardless so there is no need to mention them. Ditto for the number of papers published. Pretty much everyone looks at the bibliometrics.

Use the space instead to highlight non obvious things, e.g., first famous paper published while still an undergrad.

JLK said...

When I graduated from my MRU, they gave an honorary PhD to an alumnus who is now the CEO of some major finance company in the state and gives lots of $$$$$ to the MRU.

Being rich was/is his only accomplishment. So it happens.

Genomic Repairman said...

When I graduated from my masters program at an academic medical center they handed out a slew of h-degrees to a slew of no-names and do-nothings. Some guy who was an administrator with the VA and ran a biotech company, another was a former member of the board of trustees. I think h-degrees are pretty much crap, there may be a few cases where I think they should be handed out for significant contributions to field throughout a lifelong career (somebody like a Bob Weinberg), major prize winners (I'm talking Nobel, not science fair), and maybe a few other things but not for someone who got promoted to the branch manager of Wendy's or dumped in a chunk a change.

John Vidale said...

I don't see the issue.

Honorary degrees are a different category than degrees, so I don't think any confusion arises. And they seem to me an appropriate honor to alumni who have distinguished themselves, as well as a thank you to rich donors or an enticement to rich potential donors.

Anonymous said...

PhD degrees are not meant to be awards or honors. They are simply to indicate that one has attained a level of expertise and skill to conduct independent scholarly research on a narrow topic. (for example do medical schools give out honorary MD's?) Therefore I don't see the point in giving honorary doctorates for professional achievements or societal contributions. There's lots of other more appropriate awards to give deserved recognition

The exception would be if the recipient's work was of a sufficiently academic nature on par with what would normally be required to get a doctorate in that field. An example would be Jane Goodall. Even though she did get her PhD the 'conventional' way, before she went back to grad school she had already conducted groundbreaking field work in primate research. Thus if she hadn't gone back to grad school, I think an honorary doctorate for situations like hers is appropriate. Otherwise, if the recipient is being honored for work that is not academic in nature, then I don't see the point of giving them a honorary PhD rather than another type of award or honor.

Unless the point being that honorary doctorates are totally different from "real" doctorates and shouldn't be taken to be "real" degrees.

Enginerd said...

Getting an honorary degree from somewhere that you already had a degree from? That does seem bizarre!

My university just awarded an honorary degree to a religious leader, and I'm not sure if I'm comfortable with that. Yes, he does do a lot of charity work and inspires people, but the same could be said for many religious leaders.

Doctor Pion said...

Earl Butz!

I can't believe how you pulled an allusion to that guy out of your head.

Did anyone give him an honorary degree? All Google turned up was an emeritus office at Purdue.

EliRabett said...

Butz was also one of the leaders of the Mormons. In that capacity he probably got a slew of honorary degrees (from Brigham Young if no where else)

moz said...

Not that its ever been offered, but I would NEVER accept an honorary degree from any institution. I busted a** for my earned degree - honorary doctorates cheapen the real thing.