They’ve been handed out to presidents and dignitaries, athletes and entertainers.
Kanye’s got one. So does Affleck. Mike Tyson, the ear-chomping former heavyweight champion of the world? He picked one up back in ’89. At last count, Meryl Streep has a handful of them. Same with Oprah.
For years, the honorary degree has been doled out to an increasingly eclectic collection of individuals, a practice accepted as a mostly quirky tradition, a chance for a university to rub proverbial elbows with this celebrity or that politician, grab a headline or two, maybe land a donation.
But with the recent news that multiple universities would be rescinding the honorary degrees bestowed upon Bill Cosby, the longtime comedian now accused of sexually assaulting various women, the once-harmless practice has suddenly found itself in the spotlight.
Within the past two weeks, Brown University, Fordham University, Marquette University, and the University of San Francisco announced that they’d be pulling Cosby’s ceremonial diplomas, while Boston University — which recently released the findings of a survey indicating that roughly one in four undergraduate female students had been the victim of unwanted sexual contact — has made headlines for thus far declining to do the same.
All of it has raised questions about the practice of offering individuals — who often have no affiliation with the university in question — a ceremonial distinction with no tangible value.
Even before the recent drama, there were those who looked upon the arrangement warily. While some see it as a genuine honor meant to recognize an advancement in one field or another — West Virginia University, for instance, calls it “higher education’s most prestigious recognition” — others view it as an empty gesture, little more than a publicity grab or a wink-wink exchange for a financial endowment.
A cartoon that appeared in the Washington Daily News in 1940 summed up the latter sentiment this way: A cap-and-gowned man stands onstage as he’s handed an honorary degree by a university official. Below it, the caption reads: “Confidentially, Tom you old walrus, we’re going to send you the bill for our new gymnasium.”
The earliest instances of the honorary degree can be traced back to the mid-1400s, when some European universities began issuing them to particularly accomplished scholars.
According to Stephen Edward Epler’s 1943 book “Honorary Degrees: A Survey of Their Use and Abuse,” the first American honorary degree was bestowed in 1692 right here in Boston, inside the storied confines of Harvard University. The first recipient? Harvard’s own president, Increase Mather, who was handed a Doctor of Sacred Theology, while two school tutors were given Bachelors of Sacred Theology. (Harvard, on the other hand, lists its first honorary degree recipient as Benjamin Franklin in 1753).
In the years since, countless schools have jumped on board. Though some, including MIT and Stanford, have elected to prohibit the practice altogether, others have issued them at a sometimes astonishing rate, with rosters of recipients evolving to include all manner of individuals.
Not surprisingly, then, the practice has led to the occasional controversy.
In 2001, for instance, some students at Yale boycotted the school’s commencement ceremony in protest over the appearance of alum George W. Bush, who was being awarded an honorary doctor of law degree. Some at Notre Dame balked in 2009 when the Catholic school announced it would be honoring President Barack Obama — a pro-choice politician — with an honorary degree.
And in 2007, hundreds of University of Massachusetts students and faculty reportedly booed Andrew Card, the former chief of staff for President George W. Bush, as he accepted an honorary doctorate in public service.
Despite the occasional backlash, however, there’s plenty of evidence suggesting that the practice is as prominent now as it’s ever been.
Take Harvard, a school that, between 1753 and 1989, never handed out more than two honorary degrees in any given year, according to university records. Since 1990, however, the school has never issued fewer than five — and last year issued a total of 10.
Whether fallout from the Cosby controversy forces schools to rethink its policies and procedures remains to be seen.
E-mails sent to officials at Boston College, Emerson, and Suffolk last week went unanswered, while a spokeswoman for Tufts University declined to make school officials available for interviews.
In response to an interview request, a spokeswoman for Harvard said only that, “There is a committee that includes both faculty members from a range of fields and various members of the governing boards. They invite and assess nominations and make recommendations to the governing boards, which then vote to confer the degrees.”
What is clear is that, when it comes to handing out honorary degree, universities are limited only by their imaginations.
This was evident enough during the 1996 Southampton College commencement ceremony, when, following an introduction, the school’s newest honorary degree recipient stood behind a lectern and gazed out upon the crowd.
“President Steinberg, Chancellor Sillerman, distinguished guests,” Kermit began, “. . .I stand here before you a happy and humble frog.”
Dugan Arnett can be reached at email@example.com.