Monday, July 4, 2022

Should honorary degrees be revoked when circumstances change?

There is an unholy, disturbing practice in Africa where the president of a country is automatically the Chancellor of that country’s government-run university or universities.
Some of the presidents do not deserve to come any where near students because, while they maybe presidents, they lack exemplary dignity that parents require to instill in their children.

I am reminded of people like Idi Amin of Uganda, an illiterate former boxer who staged a coup and became president of Uganda…there was the world famous Makerere University there.

Illiterate African presidents and those “who did not stay in school too long” have the habit of awarding themselves honorary degrees.

My alma mater, the University of Massachusetts (UMass) at Amherst says it only gives an honorary degree to “persons of great accomplishment and high ethical standards who exemplify the ideals of the University…”
“Factors to be considered in awarding degrees include, among others:

1. National or international intellectual, artistic, cultural, or public service distinction in a particular field.

2. Outstanding achievement which the University wishes to acknowledge.

However, UMass’s criteria of “…persons of great accomplishment and high ethical standards…” is central in most universities’ criteria and this is where African universities expose their lack of seriousness and why honorary degrees awarded to people by some African presidents, as Chancellors of their universities, are great jokes and cause for laughter.

The University of Kentucky, for example, says that in awarding Honorary Degrees, the University accomplishes several purposes.

“It pays tribute to those whose life and work exemplify professional, intellectual, or artistic achievement. It recognizes and appreciates those who have made significant contributions to society….Well-chosen honorees affirm and dignify the University’s own achievements and priorities.”

Wikipedia says an honorary degree, or a degree honoris causa (Latin: ‘for the sake of the honour’), is an academic degree for which a university (or other degree-awarding institution) has waived the usual requirements (such as matriculation, residence, study and the passing of examinations).

“The degree itself is typically a doctorate or, less commonly, a master’s degree, and may be awarded to someone who has no prior connection with the institution in question. Usually the degree is conferred as a way of honouring a distinguished visitor’s contributions to a specific field, or to society in general. The university often derives benefits by association with the person in question.”

It goes on to say that the term honorary degree is a slight misnomer: honoris causa degrees, being awarded by a university under the terms of its charter, may be considered to have technically the same standing as ‘real’ degrees, except where explicitly stated to the contrary.

“Honorary degrees are often considered not to be of the same standing as substantive degrees, except where the recipient has demonstrated an appropriate level of academic scholarship that would ordinarily qualify them for the award of a substantive degree.”

Buxton and Strickland, (Oxford University Ceremonies, Oxford University Press) say the practice dates back to the middle ages, when, for various reasons, a university “might be persuaded, or otherwise see fit, to grant exemption from some or all of the usual statutory requirements for award of a degree.”

They say the first recorded honorary degree was awarded, by the University of Oxford, to Lionel Woodville (who later became Bishop of Salisbury) in the late 1470s.

They add that in the latter part of the sixteenth century, the granting of honorary degrees became quite common.

An on line magazine says some universities and colleges have been accused of granting honorary degrees in exchange for large donations.
“Honorary degree recipients, particularly those who have no prior academic qualifications, have sometimes been criticized if they insist on being called “Doctor” as a result of their award, as the honorific may mislead the general public about their qualifications.”

Wikipedia notes that the awarding of an honorary degree to political figures almost always prompts protests from faculty or students.

“In 2001, George W. Bush received an honorary degree from Yale University where he had earned his bachelor’s degree in history in 1968. Some students and faculty chose to boycott the ceremony.”

The BBC also mentions that in 1985, as a deliberate snub, the University of Oxford voted to refuse Margaret Thatcher an honorary degree in protest against her cuts in funding for higher education although this award had always previously been given to all Prime Ministers who had been educated at Oxford.

Wikipedia again says that recipients of an honorary doctorate do not normally adopt the title of “doctor”.

“In many countries, including the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States, it is not usual for an honorary doctor to use the formal title of “doctor”, regardless of the background circumstances for the award.”

But in my home country, President Robert Mugabe has been awarding honorary degrees to his friends and colleagues.
He awarded an honorary degree to his long time, loyal vice president, the late Simon Muzenda, a former carpenter who never made it past primary school. He, of course, started referring to himself as Dr Muzenda.
These days, because of Zimbabwe’s over-a-million percent inflation, few people have not heard the name of a Gideon Gono, the man whose signature appears on, among others, Zimbabwe’s $500 million ‘bank note’.

Gono, a businessman and Mugabe loyalist, is neither a medical doctor nor did he academically earn a Doctor of Philosophy degree. Mugabe rewarded him with an honorary doctoral degree for his unwavering support just a few months before appointing him ‘Governor of the Reserve bank of Zimbabwe.’

Of course, now he uses the title of Doctor unashamedly, to the chagrin of academics.
Dr Gideon Gono has introduced the world’s largest bank note of $750 million Zimdollars.

Having dished out a considerable number of honorary degrees to friends, Mugabe himself has a ridiculous collection of honorary degrees, the result of excessive euphoria in Europe and America soon after Zimbabwe’s independence.
But today, because people now know what they didn’t know then, they want their honorary degrees back from Mugabe.
For the first time, UMass, which has awarded over 2000 honorary degrees since 1885, is considering taking one of its honorary degrees back from Robert Mugabe, sparking international debate on whether, once given, honorary degrees can be ‘repossessed’.

“When Mugabe received the honorary doctorate of law from the UMass-Amherst campus in 1986,” said the Associated Press (AP) on April 5, 2007, “he was hailed as a humane revolutionary who ended an oppressive white rule to establish an independent Zimbabwe in 1979. But in the two decades since, Mugabe has been condemned for attacks on dissidents and accused of running a corrupt government that has ruined the economy.”

So they now want their degree back.

AP says that the issue also has surfaced at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland and at Michigan State University, which gave Mugabe honorary degrees in 1984 and 1990, respectively.

“They gave it to the Robert Mugabe of the past, who was an inspiring and hopeful figure and a humane political leader at the time,” said Professor Michael Thelwell, was one of the professors who encouraged the school to award Mugabe an honorary degree in 1986. “The university has nothing to apologize for in giving a degree to the Robert Mugabe of 20 years ago. And they wouldn’t imagine giving an honorary degree to the Robert Mugabe of today.”

Thelwell and others cautioned against revoking the degree just to appease Mugabe’s critics.
“The task of intellectuals is to seek the truth, not to be swayed by pressures of the moment,” said Bill Strickland, a UMass politics professor. “If they take away the degree, they have to look at all the facts surrounding what is happening in Zimbabwe and not simply blame just one person.”

Should honorary degrees be revoked under certain circumstances?

What do you think?


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