Published: 30-06-2011, 06:27

Honorary degree - American Education

An unearned academic degree—usually a doctorate—conferred by an institution of higher education for reasons other than the completion of a specific course of study. The most common recipients of honorary degrees tend to be college and university presidents, university trustees, educators, scientists, military leaders, authors, artists, political leaders, major financial contributors to the college or university and any other public figure or celebrity whose presence at graduation ceremonies to receive such degrees will enhance the prestige of the institution. Conferring honorary degrees need have no relevance to the recipient’s qualifications, and the degree itself, along with its title “doctor,” confers no privileges upon its recipient. Indeed, of the 50,000- odd honorary degrees conferred in the United States each year, many are purchased outright by their recipients.
The most common honorary degrees are the honorary doctor of laws, doctor of humane letters, doctor of divinity, doctor of science and doctor of letters, all of which are professionally meaningless.As Mark Twain put it in accepting an honorary doctor of letters degree at Oxford University, “It pleased me beyond measure when Yale made me a master of Arts, because I didn’t know anything about Art. I had another convulsion of pleasure when Harvard made me a Doctor of Literature, because I was not competent to doctor anybody’s literature but my own. . . . I rejoiced again when Missouri University made me a Doctor of Laws, because it was all clear profit, I not knowing anything about laws except how to evade them and not get caught.”
The award or sale of honorary degrees dates back to the 14th century, when Paris University sold theology degrees to would-be priests. Harvard College, the first college in the New World, was also first to confer honorary degrees—in 1692, when it conferred a doctor of sacred theology degree on its president, INCREASE MATHER, who was himself a graduate of Harvard with an earned degree. For many decades thereafter, the award of honorary degrees remained a serious process, with most honorees limited to academics and American presidents, although Harvard alumni, including John Quincy Adams, protested the award of an honorary doctor of laws degree to populist president Andrew Jackson. Told that he was expected to make his acceptance speech in Latin, the relatively unschooled “Dr.” Jackson spoke the only Latin words he knew: “E pluribus unum, sine qua non, multum in parvo, quid pro quo, ne plus ultra.”
As major colleges sought to expand into universities in the late 19th century, the award of honorary degrees to financiers, industrialists and other potential donors became so common a fund-raising technique that from 1870 to the beginning of World War I colleges awarded more honorary than earned degrees. Although the award of earned degrees now exceeds honorary degrees by about seven to one—38,000 to 5,000 in 1990—the practice of awarding honorary degrees to actual and potential financial donors has continued. In addition, colleges and universities continue routinely to grant degrees to political figures, often, as in the case of Harvard or Yale, because of tradition and just as often in an effort to obtain publicity and prestige. When the quest for publicity fails to produce famous honorees, some colleges turn to the infamous. Northwestern University once awarded an honorary degree to Charlie McCarthy, a popular ventriloquist’s dummy of the 1940s and 1950s. Other colleges and universities have awarded thousands of honorary degrees to comedians and actors, professional baseball and football stars, popular singers and dancers and a host of other nonacademics with few, if any, academic qualifications for such honors.
Occasionally, honorary degrees are awarded to those who have performed valuable services for a college or university—i.e., “friends” of the institution who may have been responsible for raising funds or obtaining gifts of land. Even in this area, ludicrous choices have often tarnished the value of such awards—as with one college’s award of a doctor of delectables to a longtime campus hot dog vendor and another school’s award of a doctor of canine fidelity to a seeing-eye dog.