For the Sake of the Honor
It all began at Harvard University in 1692, when the Ivy League school gave the first honorary degree in the United States to Puritan clergyman Increase Mather. However, honorary degrees had been granted for over 200 years before this (the University of Oxford gave out its first honorary degree in the 1470s). Then, the degree was given mainly to scholars.
While they're a nice recognition and probably look good hanging on the wall, honorary degrees are not 'real' degrees; in other words, being awarded an honorary degree is not the same as earning an actual doctorate. In fact, an honorary degree is a degree honoris causa, Latin for 'for the sake of the honor'. They are not used to further one's career, fatten one's bank account or dress up one's resume. If anything, honorary degrees draw more attention to the college or university bestowing the honor, since it ties them to the (usually famous or well-known) recipient.
Many schools award honorary degrees to their commencement speakers, though being chosen as a keynote speaker does not always mean that the individual will also be selected for the honorary award (this might be true when the commencement speaker is paid for his or her services). Nor are all honorary degree recipients commencement speakers. For instance, Princeton University keeps its list of recipients a secret until the graduation ceremony, with the university's president typically delivering the commencement address.
Many schools present the degree to famous alumni. Honorary degree nominees can be named by individuals or faculty members. Recipients are ultimately chosen through a voting process by a school's trustees or board of regents.
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A Practice Not Without Controversy
Perhaps the value of an honorary degree has been somewhat diminished by the sheer number handed out over time. Some institutions have presented well over a thousand such degrees in their history. And, as one would expect, a practice encompassing a large number of noted personas over a long period of time would not unfold without its share of controversy.
Perhaps one of the strangest but most humorous controversies involved Long Island University's Southampton College. In 1996, the school awarded an honorary Doctor of Amphibious Letters to Kermit the Frog for his work in education and in raising environmental awareness. Even though there were those who did not agree with the idea of bestowing the honor on a puppet, Kermit accepted the award and did indeed give an acceptance speech.
In 2009, Arizona State University famously refused to give President Barack Obama an honorary degree, citing a lack of experience and absence of a qualifying body of work. The President delivered the university's commencement speech that year. ASU is one of the few schools that do not use the same process to select speakers and honorary degree nominees.
In May 2011, there was yet another kerfuffle, this time between Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner and City University of New York. Deemed 'anti-Israel' and 'a Jewish anti-Semite' by a trustee of the university, CUNY at first voted to withhold Kushner's honorary degree, but changed that vote after much criticism. Kushner later accepted the award.
A Time-Honored, and Seemingly Timeless, Practice
Are all recipients truly deserving, or are their accomplishments grand enough to warrant such notice? Arguable, to say the least. Have individuals worthy of the honor been overlooked? Without a doubt. Have rules been in some cases bent to accommodate the recipients? Sometimes. In 2009, UCLA lifted a 37-year moratorium on honorary degrees to honor Japanese-American students of the university who, in February 1942, were sent to internment camps per orders of the federal government.
And has the practice been overdone? Maybe, but perhaps there are some individuals who simply deserve the recognition, even if it's over and over. Take, for instance, Daisaku Ikeda of Japan, a Buddhist philosopher, founder of Soka University and president of Soka Gakkai International. Ikeda currently holds about 300 honorary degrees.
Now that's a lot of wall space!
Despite the controversies and questionable value of an honorary degree, the practice appears to be here to stay.