Protecting our honour

I’m about to make up a number here, but just work with me. Across the world in 2017, some 200,000 people were awarded honorary doctorates. A significant proportion these awards were handed to eminent academics, often at or near retirement, whose work was of real intellectual significance and produced wider benefits. Some were awarded to prominent people who showed their support for higher education activities and values. Some… – well some, you just don’t know why they got them.

I’m sure that it is not the most urgent issue to address in today’s global higher education, but I confess that, as a university head for the past 18 years, I was never absolutely sure how to handle honorary degrees. When I became President of Dublin City University I introduced a moratorium, and for the first three years of my tenure we awarded none at all. Then we carefully identified a small number of people with whose work and achievements we wanted to identify as a university, but we continued to do this sparingly and at most ceremonies there were no honorary conferrings.

I continued this approach in Robert Gordon University (and in fact had to deal with one honorary degree awarded before my time which we felt we had to revoke). While I feel really proud of  the honorary doctorates that were conferred in my time in both universities, I have never been quite sure whether my approach was right or wrong. It just seemed to me that the currency of these awards was increasingly debased across higher education because there were so many of them. I am absolutely not against recognising achievements, values and principles, and honorary degrees are a way of celebrating exceptional merit. This year for example, on International Women’s Day, RGU conferred honorary doctorates on three outstanding women, with very different backgrounds and profiles; it was a wonderful occasion.

But then again, is it right that a number of celebrities gather up a whole collection of awards that seem to recognise their fame rather than any merit? And still, some of these celebrities have done remarkable things to help others and uphold intellectual values. So what really is the correct approach?

I have no answer really, but would urge universities to make these awards signify something that supports and enhances the purposes and values of the institution, and to do it not so frequently as to obscure the special merit of each honour.

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2 Comments on “Protecting our honour”

  1. Anna Notaro Says:

    For a long time I thought that the best honorary degrees were the ones bestowed posthumously, (although reputations can take a bash even after death, of course) more recently though I have realised that honorary doctorates, if used wisely, can be another tool to foster a more diverse and inclusive culture.
    First of all, nominations for honorary degrees should not be the remit of secretive committees, they must be sought across the whole institution, secondly staff working in the areas of Equality & Diversity and the Athena SWAN Charter have a very important role to play in highlighting gender (or any other protected characteristic) imbalances if, (as it is very likely), they have occurred in the past) and put forward *credible* nominations which, in turn, can be powerful role models for graduands.
    This is the most honourable approach to what otherwise might turn into a frivolous and, ultimately, dishonourable exercise in academic self-grandiosity.

  2. Vince Says:

    Just to Devil’s Advocate the thing.
    What harm. It’s not as if people think they will bother those that ‘earn’ their in. And I’m also of the opinion like George V and the VC. If someone got one in the past, then what they got it for is in the past. That they change into something that wouldn’t now on aggregate get the HonDoc shouldn’t matter. Indeed it might just show they had a good side.
    In truth though I never saw them as anything other than a method to leverage new cash which in the past meant hooking loose politicians with a hand on the bucket containing exchequer cash, but now means someone with a far larger bucket. And if delivering the Plámás to Bill Gates or whom ever and it gains a new library/Lab then, what harm.
    Is it not a bit like the horsey people winning a ribbon worth 50 pence on a horse worth £500 driven to the event in a box worth £5,000, pulled by a jeep costing £55,000, living in a stable costing £250,000.

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