A few days ago the New York Times ran a story on the question of revoking honorary degrees. The focus of the story was the Bill Cosby, and questions about revoking his degrees in light of recent sexual abuse allegations. But the piece raises all kinds of interesting issues—to me anyway—about the meaning and significance of honorary degrees. I wouldn’t normally invest too much time thinking about such an arcane and, all things considered, relatively harmless symbolic practice. Except that sometimes those awards confer significance on some rather objectionable folks. And Americans have long valued the moral character of public figures over their intelligence (an ideal rebuked in two prominent essays by John Erskine and Lionel Trilling).
What do we know about the history of conferring honorary degrees?
According to a write-up prepared for the Brandeis University Board of Trustees (confirmed in other articles) the practice of bestowing these honors began over five centuries ago in the university setting—at one of the most prominent institutions in the history of higher education:
Honorary degrees appear to have arisen out of the practice of granting dispensations from certain particular academic requirements.
European universities began granting degrees “for the sake of the honor” (honoris causa) in the 15th century, and the first such degree was awarded at Oxford University in 1478 or 1479 to Lionel Woodville, Dean of Exeter, the brother-in-law of Edward IV and the future Bishop of Salisbury. These were essentially academic peerages, entitling the recipient to full privileges in the university, privileges that were much more extensive than now. At the same time universities conferred degrees on certain scholars whose career achievements warranted such recognition.
Given this, in what we now might call the “knowledge economy,” there were two reasons for bestowing the degree, one economic/scholarly (university privileges) and intellectual rank due to prior work done.
Despite the bestowal, apparently tradition also dictates that the recipient refrain from using the title of “doctor.” According to the same short Brandeis piece, only one American in history has flouted tradition: “An early and notable exception is Benjamin Franklin, who received an honorary doctorate from the University of St. Andrews in 1759 and the University of Oxford in 1762 for his scientific accomplishments, and thereafter referred to himself as “Doctor Franklin.”
What the history of the honorary doctorate in the United States? According to the same article, “the first honorary degree awarded in America was an honorary doctor of divinity degree conferred by Harvard University in 1692 on its president, Increase Mather.”My own histories of higher education (i.e. those on hand) neglect discussion of honorary doctorates until the 1870s and 1880s. In those decades the awarding of honorary doctorates increased precisely when the “real” doctorate—the PhD credential—was coming into its own in academia. In this jumbled period of doubt, when the path to the doctorate was not yet standardized, Frederick Rudolph reports that all manner of institutions, including Princeton and Dartmouth, awarded honorary doctorates in an effort to cover the tracks of faculty with lesser qualifications. When the path toward a PhD became more standardized, around the turn of the twentieth century, the number of honorary doctorates awarded declined precipitously, from 39 in 1890 to 2 in 1910.
Curiously, it was the rise of the legitimate PhD that inspired William James to write his now famous 1903 essay, “The Ph.D. Octopus.” In that piece, published in the Harvard Monthly, James decried the PhD as no guarantor of good teaching. He felt the credential was being used in a kind of faculty arms race being conducted at the time by prominent institutions, particularly Harvard University. To James the advent of the real PhD signaled the rise of a new kind of academic elitism—a fig leaf covering a diminishment of academic freedom in favor of excessive organization of inquiry.
Returning to the present, the practice of giving honorary degrees has often involved celebrities. This recent lament from the London Telegraph notes the following honors given to those with dubious scholarly credentials:
– Kanye West, Honorary Doctorate, School of the Art Institute
– Jon Bon Jovi, Honorary Doctorate of Humanities, Monmouth University
– Kermit the Frog, Honorary Doctorate of Amphibious Letters, Southampton College, NY
– Dannii Minogue, Honorary Doctorate of Media, Southampton Solent University
– William Shatner, Honorary Doctorate of Letters, McGill University, Canada
– Yoko Ono, Honorary Doctorate of Laws Liverpool University
– Mike Tyson, Honorary Doctorate in Humane Letters, Central State University, Ohio
Returning to the NYT article, what of “honoris causa” that become “ignominia causa” (i.e. for the sake of dishonor)? Is the decision to revoke really that tough, with regard to Bill Cosby or other recipients whose choices degrade the award and the institution that bestowed it? Should our prominent institutions, such as Yale and Notre Dame (noted in the NYT article), be holdouts on rescinding honors? Not only does that seem like a bad intellectual decision, in that it diminishes the academic-intellectual reputation of the institution, but it would seem to be a poor industry decision as well. Nice message to your “consumers” and, more importantly, the parents of your marketing/recruitment/admissions teams. And what of the politics of reputation in an age where government purse strings have been pulled tight?
Lastly, there is, in the NYT article, a faulty that-was-then historicist line of reasoning given by an advancement officer: “We give out honorary degrees based on what we know at the time,” said Kimberly Alexander, vice president for institutional advancement at Talladega College in Alabama where Mr. Cosby was honored in 1992, “and at the time he was everybody’s favorite dad.”
And everyone’s favorite celebrity doktorvater, apparently: Few people in American history have been recognized by universities as often as Mr. Cosby, whose publicist once estimated that the entertainer had collected more than 100 honorary degrees. The New York Times, in a quick search, found nearly 60.
Returning to Ms. Alexander (providing her statement reflects the full context of the interview), since when did advancement officers become necessary protectors of institutional mistakes—or historical ignorance and past, mistaken moral judgments? If there was ever a breed of people lived in the present and future, it is advancement officers. It seems against their interests to maintain adverse historical judgments as sacred artifacts.
If “honoris causa” are embedded in the culture of higher education, then it seems that institutions must award them more carefully. No one can predict the future perfectly. But if past performance has any predictive weight, at all, in relation to future behavior, academic leaders ought to take past character of potential honorary degree receipients quite seriously. If administrators do not believe in the moral obligation to be intelligent, they might at least consider the obligation to be moral, or honorable. Award honorary doctorates to those least likely to dishonor both the institution and higher education generally. Make sure the genius in the portfolio before you has few-to-no character questions.
And if you do, unfortunately, give the nod to a person later revealed as possessing unsavory character traits, then protect your current and future integrity by rescinding the honor—for goodness sake. Renew the real significance and deep meaning of the award. – TL
 Frederick Rudolph, The American College and University: A History (New York: Vintage, 1965), 396-7. Rudolph’s book was first published in 1962.
 Ibid., 397.