Controversies Swirl Around Honorary Degrees

The time-honored tradition of granting honorary degrees often becomes a publicity stunt with the potential to backfire.
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  • Universities have awarded honorary degrees for more than 500 years.
  • Honorary degrees acknowledge individuals for outstanding achievements and contributions to society.
  • Some colleges have drawn criticism for paying exorbitant fees to commencement speakers and honorary degree recipients.
  • Institutions can revoke honorary degrees for various misdeeds.

Swifties are circling the gates at Yankee Stadium.

As soon as New York University announced singer Taylor Swift would be this year's commencement speaker, fans began jonesing for tickets — even the ones not graduating from NYU. People have taken to Reddit and Twitter in desperate attempts to persuade students to part with their precious commodities, offering up to $500 for a coveted seat. Alas, graduates receive only two tickets each, and NYU prohibits students from selling them.

Lucky audience members will not only hear the pop diva impart pearls of wisdom but also see her receive an honorary degree: the doctor of fine arts, honoris causa. That's Dr. Swift to you, pal. (Well, not exactly.)

NYU's kerfuffle marks the latest in a long line of controversies surrounding commencement speakers and honorary degree recipients. Why do universities award honorary degrees, anyway? And what's all the fuss about?

What Is an Honorary Degree?

Universities confer honorary degrees, commonly in the form of honorary doctorates, to recognize people for their achievements and contributions to society. The honorary degree is generally considered the highest honor an institution can bestow upon an individual. Recipients do not have to be graduates of the university to receive an honorary degree, though some are.

And some, like Taylor Swift, didn't attend any college.

This peculiar practice began at Oxford University, which awarded the first honorary degree to Lionel Woodville, Dean of Exeter, in either 1478 or 1479. The debate over the exact year rages on to this day.

Similarly, Harvard claims it awarded its first honorary degree to Benjamin Franklin in 1753, while nearby Brandeis University — which naturally should know Harvard's history better than Harvard — says the first such degree was given to Increase Mather in 1692. Controversy, it seems, has engulfed honorary degrees from the outset.

Swift's doctor of fine arts designation is but one form of honorary degree. Others include doctors of laws, science, humane letters, literature, music, divinity, and arts, to name a few. They come with the tag "honoris causa," which means "for the sake of the honor."

Individuals receiving honorary doctorates are typically not referred to as "doctor," a title generally reserved for those who earned it. Still, that didn't stop Ben Franklin from referring to himself as "Dr. Franklin" after receiving honorary degrees from the University of St. Andrews and Oxford, nor did poet Maya Angelou refrain from using the term to denote the many honorary doctorates she received.

On his ESPN show "Pardon the Interruption," host Tony Kornheiser jokingly refers to himself as "doctor," even sometimes sporting a lab coat and stethoscope, in light of his honorary Doctor of Letters degree from his alma mater, Binghamton University.

And when Charlie Day of "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" fame received his honorary doctorate from Merrimack College, he quipped, "As a doctor, I plan to start writing my own prescriptions immediately."

Folks in academe, where doctorates are the coin of the realm, take this matter rather seriously. They often call their own honorary degree recipients "doctor" in correspondence but counsel awardees not to use the term self-referentially.

Exorbitant Paydays for Celebrity Speakers

Not all honorary degrees are awarded based on intellectual achievement or notable contributions to the betterment of society. Some colleges are simply in it for the publicity or to seek a quid pro quo.

"Sometimes they are used to reward donors who have given money," Arthur Levine, former president of Teachers College at Columbia University, told The New York Times. "Sometimes they are used to draw celebrities to make the graduation special."

One study examining the University of Vermont found that between 2002 and 2012, 35 of the 60 people who received honorary degrees during that time made donations to the respective universities totaling $13.6 million.

Attracting an A-list celebrity or political figure can draw serious media attention, as demonstrated by the Taylor Swift spectacle.

"It brings inevitable publicity," noted a Reader's Digest article, "attracting incoming freshmen with hopes that their graduation will also feature an actor or late-night TV host."

Or a frog. When Southampton College in New York (now Stony Brook Southampton) awarded an honorary "doctor of amphibious letters" to Kermit the Frog in 1996, 31 newspapers ran the story, providing a "free marketing bonanza that raised the college's profile and drew hundreds of new admissions."

Universities often have to pay for such attention. It should be noted, however, that commencement speakers don't always receive honorary degrees. Awardees can receive honorariums in lieu of an honorary degree, or vice versa. Or they can get both.

In 2015, the University of Houston paid actor Matthew McConaughey $135,000 plus personal expenses to deliver the commencement address. He did not receive an honorary degree. The same held true for former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, who pocketed $75,000 to deliver High Point University's commencement address in 2005 without receiving an honorary degree. (More on Giuliani later.)

But when journalist Katie Couric spoke at the University of Oklahoma's commencement in 2006, she earned $110,000 for her efforts, along with an honorary degree. The university received a considerable amount of flak in return, even though the funds came from private sources. And in 2011, writer Toni Morrison took home $30,000 and an honorary doctor of letters for delivering Rutgers University's commencement address.

"Rutgers University, like many institutions around the country, offers an honorarium to attract esteemed, high-caliber speakers — most of whom charge a fee," Greg Trevor, a Rutgers spokesman, said at the time.

Margot Sarlo, director of marketing at All American Entertainment, told Inside Higher Ed in 2015 that commencement speakers "can range from $5,000 to half a million."

Yet in 2011, Michael Frick, president of Speakers Platform, estimated that only 30% of colleges paid commencement speakers. And in 2016, an Associated Press survey found that 16 of 20 colleges didn't pay speaker fees that year. Some schools, such as Georgetown, prohibit payments to commencement speakers and honorary degree recipients.

The AP story also noted that Ivy League schools rarely pay for speakers — or rather, they rarely have to pay for speakers, relying on their prestige and personal connections to lure famous names to campus.

Some observers, including Zachary Michael Jack, an associate professor of English at North Central College, believe universities shouldn't be in the business of glorifying celebrities at graduations.

"Commissioning costly celebrity commencement speakers sends the wrong message, especially in an era of record student debt," Jack wrote in a Los Angeles Times op-ed. "Star speakers also invariably bring a cult of celebrity to what should be a humanistic rite of passage. The focus should be on the students, not the stars."

Revoking Honorary Degrees for Misdeeds

Jack also issued a warning about potential repercussions.

"By inviting celebrities to campus and granting them honorary degrees," he wrote, "colleges make themselves vulnerable to future criticism. A must-see politician could always be one step away from political scandal."

Indeed, last January the University of Rhode Island (URI) Board of Trustees voted to revoke the honorary degrees awarded to Giuliani and retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn because of their roles in helping to instigate the January 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol. URI president Marc Parlange said Giuliani and Flynn "no longer represent the highest level of our values and standards that were evident when we first bestowed the degree."

Citing similar reasons, Lehigh University revoked the honorary degree it had awarded to former President Donald Trump in 1988.

Throughout his career, comedian Bill Cosby amassed nearly 60 honorary degrees. In light of the numerous sexual assault charges leveled against him, almost all of the institutions that granted him degrees have since rescinded them.

Other individuals accused of sexual misconduct have experienced similar fates. The University of Pennsylvania rescinded not only Bill Cosby's honorary degree but also the one it awarded to casino mogul and alumnus Steve Wynn. Marist College revoked TV host Bill O'Reilly's honorary degree, and the University at Buffalo did the same with former film producer Harvey Weinstein.

Additional reasons prompt such actions. Michigan State University and the University of Massachusetts revoked Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe's honorary degrees in 2008 due to human rights violations. And Tufts University rescinded cyclist Lance Armstrong's degree after allegations of performance-enhancing drug usage surfaced.

Perhaps that's in part why some universities play it safe and don't award honorary degrees in the first place. Cornell University hasn't awarded one since its second commencement ceremony, when President Andrew Dickinson White declared that honorary degrees would diminish the value of real degrees earned by students. Similarly, Stanford University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Virginia, and Rice University avoid this otherwise ubiquitous tradition.

When Darren Saunders and Samantha Thomas wrote in 2011 that a "rising tide of celebrity doctorates suggests they may be the latest must-have accessory," it wasn't exactly clear if they meant celebrities were accessorizing with degrees or if universities were self-aggrandizing through celebrity appearances. We assume the former, but given all the pomp and circumstance around famous names receiving honorary degrees on the commencement stage, universities aren't shy about basking in the spotlight, even despite — or perhaps because of — the occasional controversies that ensue.