The Magazine

What's Up, Doc?

The prestige of honorary degrees falls to record lows.

May 26, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 35 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Northwestern, the university where I taught for 30 years, appears to have caught its nether parts in a wringer. It seems they approached the Reverend Jeremiah Wright about accepting an honorary degree, and, now that Wright has made clear the kind of clergyman he is, Northwestern has withdrawn its offer. The president of the university, a man named Henry Bienen, in a letter to Reverend Wright, wrote that

in light of the controversy surrounding statements made by you that have recently been publicized, the celebratory character of Northwestern's commencement would be affected by our conferring of this honorary degree. Thus I am withdrawing the offer of an honorary degree previously extended to you.

Universities, those most cowardly of modern institutions, are never more beguiling than when caught out not having the courage of their lack of conviction. One can imagine the delight of the man or woman in Northwestern's provost office when he or she discovered Jeremiah Wright's name and put him up for an honorary degree. For it wouldn't do, when passing out honorary degrees each spring, not to have one go to an African American, and by now surely Northwestern must have awarded honorary degrees to all the usual suspects: Toni Morrison, Bill Cosby, Maya Angelou, John Hope Franklin, et alia.

And then, as the song has it, Reverend Wright went and spoiled it all by saying something stupid: not I love you but that the United States government invented AIDS to kill poor black people. Imagine now the meeting at Northwestern where it was decided to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Wright, with all turning to the doofus who suggested Jeremiah Wright's name in the first place. ("A fine mess you've got us into this time, Stanley!") All those powerful minds devising ways to cover the university's fleshy but soft flanks. Although it left Northwestern with the burden of finding another African American in time for commencement, the conclusion was inevitable: Sorry, Rev, no honorary doctorate for you.

The larger problem, really, is the conferring of honorary degrees generally. The practice goes back to the 15th century; the first honorary degree was awarded by Oxford to the Bishop of Salisbury. For many centuries thereafter honorary degrees tended to be awarded to scholars and scientists and occasionally to artists. This remains the policy of the University of Chicago; no businessmen or politicians are given honorary degrees. The year President Clinton was the school's commencement speaker, the faculty agreed to allow him to speak only if he were awarded no honorary degree.

Benjamin Franklin became "Dr. Franklin" owing to honorary degrees given him by St. Andrews and by Oxford for his scientific work with electricity. Perhaps the world's most famous Dr., Samuel Johnson, was a Dr. by honorary degrees awarded him by Trinity College, Dublin, and by Oxford. Maya Angelou, who regularly refers to herself as "Dr. Angelou," has honorary doctorates only, and no undergraduate degree to go with them. As an African American and a woman, she may well have more honorary doctorates than anyone in the history of this strange ritual.

My late friend Sol Linowitz once told me that he had 64 such degrees. Linowitz combined modest fame for good works (he was ambassador to the Organization of American States) with heavy bread (he had been the chairman of the board at Xerox), which made him a near perfect candidate for an honorary degree: someone not disgraceful who just might donate a large sum to the school that had honored him.

Universities often award honorary degrees with such obvious motives in mind. Getting a rich person to drop some of his or her swag on them is only one. Sheer vulgar publicity is another. Many years ago my wife's school, DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, gave an honorary degree to the newspaper columnist Erma Bombeck. When my wife wrote to the president of the school to suggest that doing so lowered the tone of the joint considerably, the president wrote back to say that Mrs. Bombeck gave a commencement talk full of laughs and that the talk was very well covered by the press. Case closed.

A cultural historian may one day be able to measure the fall from seriousness of American universities by tracking the people to whom they chose to award honorary degrees. The first step in this descent I noted was the awarding of such degrees to television journalists (Walter Cronkite, the man who has a face only a nation could love, must have a closet filled with the damn things). From there these degrees went to movie stars and television comedians. Northwestern, I know, has given honorary doctorates to Robert Redford and Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Yale gave one some years back to Meryl Streep. The motive here, at least in part, is to get a commencement address on the cheap, and to give the graduating students the right to say that at their commencement someone wildly famous spoke. Yet one wonders if the graduates of Long Island's Southampton College, allowed to reflect upon the matter in tranquility, were entirely pleased when their school gave an honorary degree to Kermit the Frog.

Controversy has surrounded the granting of honorary degrees from Oxford, Harvard, the Sorbonne in more recent years. Oxford went out of its way to refuse publicly to award such a one to Margaret Thatcher because she had severely cut university budgets in England. When in 2001 Yale granted an honorary degree to George W. Bush, one of its alumni, students and some faculty members refused to attend commencement in protest. Not a few universities have been caught by the twists of history, awarding an honorary degree to someone who later turns out to be a dictator or other species of political monster: the University of Edinburgh and the University of Massachusetts (Boston) conferred honorary degrees on Robert Mugabe that one may be sure they wished they hadn't.

The degree itself has never meant much but in recent years even the honor has been greatly diminished. The iron law of diversity has contributed to this in a significant way. No contemporary university dare not include women, African Americans, and other minority members among the honorary degree recipients at its annual commencement lest it be attacked for official bigotry. As soon as this harsh note of necessity enters the proceedings, distinction, and with it genuine prestige, departs.

Perhaps it is a little late to report that I have an honorary doctorate, though just one, and, let it be emphasized, from a not very famous school. I was also once called by the president of a university in Illinois, an institution whose name I cannot now recall, who asked if I would fill in for the person, recently become ill, who was supposed to give the school's commencement address. A modest fee was mentioned, and then the president added, "Of course, we'll toss in an honorary degree." I turned down the invitation but have never forgotten the phrase "toss in," and even now regret I didn't say to him that I'd much rather he toss in a rear-window defogger.

I like to think that I have personally warded off any more offers of honorary degrees by asserting, in print, that I'd rather have a sandwich named after me than an honorary degree from Oxford or any other institution of higher-learning.

So low has the prestige of honorary degrees fallen by being given to third- and fourth-class people that there are now even jokes about such degrees. One of the best is about the fabulously rich oil man, T-bone Tex Cunningham, who one day calls the office of the president of Southeast Texas A&M (at Langtry) to offer a donation of $100 million to the school. The president, in a mood of exultation at the size of the gift, asks T-bone if there is anything the school can do for him.

"As a matter of fact there is," the oil man replies. "I'd like an honorary doctorate for my favorite Arab stallion, Fertile Crescent by name."

"Mr. Cunningham," the president says, "I'm sure that this can be arranged without any difficulty at all."

At the next meeting of his board of trustees, the president of Southeast Texas A&M informs them of Cunningham's enormous gift and the request that goes with it. The trustees are, naturally enough, shocked by the request, but the president tells them not to worry, he'll bring it off just fine.

Commencement day in Langtry, seated on the stage behind the lectern are the recipients of the current year's honorary degrees: Amiri Baraka, Brett Favre, Raúl Castro, Germaine Greer, Yasser Arafat's son-in-law, and the horse. The president steps up to the podium, and begins:

Students, faculty, parents, and friends of Southeast Texas A&M university, I am proud presently to announce this year's recipients of honorary degrees from our great institution. But before I do, I want to point out that our school is today making history, and you all should be very proud that Southeast Texas A&M is first in the nation to award an honorary doctorate to an entire horse.

I hope that, in consolation, the morning of Northwestern University's commencement, someone tells this joke to Reverend Jeremiah Wright.

Joseph Epstein is a contributing editor to
will be published in September by the
Yale University Press.