Honorary degrees ought to graduate from arbitrary past

by Editorial Board / Beacon Staff • April 9, 2015

At issue: ‘Tis the season for commencement speaker announcements.

Our take: Time to rethink honorary degrees.

In the minds of many eager seniors waiting for their degrees, honorary degrees serve an unnecessary purpose—simply another series of lectures befitting the Emerson classrooms they’re eager to exit. And they are: like many other colleges, Emerson bestows honorary degrees, and too often to people that aren’t befitting entry into the Emerson family. One of last year’s recipients, CNN anchor Don Lemon, is among the most-criticized journalists in the business—his inept coverage of the Ferguson protests and insensitive interviews with an alleged Bill Cosby rape victim being two standout moments in his blundering career. Emerson should instead include student voices in the decision process.

Honorary degrees do have a long history: The first one, at least on record, was awarded to Lionel Woodville in the 1470s by the University of Oxford. He later became Bishop of Salisbury. The original purpose for honorary degrees (or honoris causa, which is Latin for “for the sake of honor”) was to exempt certain people of status from the usual university requirements, like studying or taking exams, to gain a degree.

But today, it would be laughable if an honorary degree recipient tried to earnestly use the title “doctor,” and the idea seems antiquated. Except for self-promotion, it’s hard to see what the college gains by giving out these quasi-fake degrees—degrees that would cost normal students real money. Sure, it’s fun to invite Jay Leno to campus for some good publicity, but it’s not really making any difference in the world of Emerson. And really, it’s not making any difference to Leno either. Honorary degrees are more of an ego-stroke for the recipient, not something that actually holds any real world value.

It’s true that Emerson has awarded honorary degrees to famous figures, like James Earl Jones, the actor who voiced Mufasa and Darth Vader; Tony Kushner, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright; Thomas Menino, the former mayor; and Vice President Joe Biden. But it’s unclear how much the award actually means to them—or how granting those awards has helped Emerson students since then. John Updike, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and writer of such works as Rabbit, Run, actually threw his collection of honorary degrees away—including one from Emerson—according to The Atlantic.

This leads to the question of how Emerson even goes about choosing the recipients. Why Leno? Why Lemon? In his speeches last year, President M. Lee Pelton alluded to the Board of Trustees helping to make the decision, but the college provides no real transparency in how the awardees are chosen. Unless the process is clear, it’s not unreasonable for students and faculty alike to suspect it’s nothing more than a deal worked out with the recipient's agent.

At the very least, honorary degree recipients have to appear at least somewhat prepared. Lemon’s acceptance speech was an awkward mess. He stumbled over his words so badly that he accidentally called white people a minority. Anyone who speaks at a commencement ceremony should understand that graduation is a major milestone in the lives of those attending and should treat the situation with a degree of respect. The school is giving the recipients its highest honor. The least they can do is contribute a moment of moderate eloquence to the students that are the college’s lifeblood.

This year’s honorary degree recipients haven’t been announced yet, which gives Emerson administrators ample opportunity to include students in their decision-making process. Though this would not be without its risks—Emerson’s celebrity culture often lends itself to popularity contests—it would be valuable in sussing out a deeper value of honorary degrees. If these honors are truly as meaningful as our Board of Trustees makes them out to be, then entry into the Emerson mafia should require the entire family’s approval.