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Should colleges stop handing out honorary degrees?

Published May 08. 2018 12:34PM

In light of several recent high-profile revocations of honorary doctorate degrees, local colleges and those across the country are rethinking whether these designations should be eliminated all together.

Lafayette College in Easton and Temple University in Philadelphia were among those which revoked the honorary degrees to convicted sexual abuser, comedian Bill Cosby. They joined Lehigh University in Bethlehem and Muhlenberg College in Allentown, which acted similarly three years ago.

The Lehigh University Board of Trustees has been besieged by nearly 80,000 petition-signers to revoke the honorary degree awarded to President Donald Trump 30 years ago. So far, the board has refused.

There has been a spate of revocations in recent years as part of the #MeToo movement. The honorary degrees given to media stars Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose, as well as actor Kevin Spacey and producer Harvey Weinstein have come under review.

The State University of New York at Oswego, where I was an adjunct instructor for more than 25 years, recently asked the state board of trustees to revoke Rose’s honorary degree issued in 2014. Rose was a visiting instructor there, which the college heavily promoted in attempting to recruit students to its communication studies program.

Rose was back in the news last week as more accusers came forward about his behavior at CBS and the failure of producers to act on credible accusations. Rose was fired from CBS and PBS after eight women accused Rose of sexual misconduct.

“These are credible allegations of predatory sexual harassment that completely conflict with the core values of our institution and significantly degrade the achievements that were the basis for awarding him an honorary degree,” said university President Deborah Stanley in announcing the board of trustees’ decision.

But there are some schools which will not rescind honorary degrees once awarded. Among them is the prestigious Juilliard School in New York, which gave an honorary doctorate to actor Spacey in 2000. Oscar winner Spacey most recently was the star of “House of Cards,” a Netflix original series.

Athletes are not exempt from revocations. Among them is disgraced Tour de France bicyclist champion Lance Armstrong, who received an honorary degree in 2012 from Tufts University.

There are mixed feelings among educators about these degrees. Robert O’Neil, former president of the University of Virginia, said the issue becomes more complicated when the person accorded the honorary degree gives a big donation or endowment to the college. Even trickier is when a building is named in the donor’s honor.

There are some colleges which will never find themselves in such a bind, because they do not award honorary degrees. Among them are the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Virginia. The university’s founder, President Thomas Jefferson called these types of degrees “meaningless credentials.”

Former East Stroudsburg University President Robert Dillman disagreed. In awarding the Distinguish Alumni Award to a recipient in 2011, Dillman called the award “the second most prestigious the college issues, next only to an honorary degree.”

The reason that colleges and universities hand out honorary degrees are as varied as the recipients who get them. This has been going on for a long time — more than 500 years, in fact, starting in Europe.

Looking through the lists of honorary degrees, we can find that they are made not nearly as often to influential scientists, engineers and historians as they are to wealthy businessmen and women, politicians and pop culture stars.

Those who go through the academic rigors to earn doctorate degrees are among those who bristle at the idea that colleges and universities hand out honorary doctorates so frequently to those who do not have the academic credentials. Famed author Maya Angelou, who was awarded over 50 honorary doctorate degrees from institutions around the world, referred to herself as “Dr. Angelou” despite lacking an earned doctoral degree.

By Bruce Frassinelli | tneditor@tnonline.com

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