Honorary degrees tainted by politics, low-brow culture

June 18, 1999|By Herbert London

NEW YORK -- As the season for college commencements winds down, it's a good time to look at the practice of conferring honorary degrees.

Arthur Levine, president of Teachers College at Columbia University, says honorary degrees "are used to reward donors who have given money. Sometimes they are used to draw celebrities to make the graduation special."

He also notes the use of honorary degrees as the "last lesson a college can teach, by showing examples of people who most represent the values the institution stands for."

Alas, he is correct. In ways that Mr. Levine does not recognize, the selection of honorary degree recipients by universities offers profound evidence of what those institutions have become.

Among honorary degree recipients at university commencements this year are singer Judy Collins, actress Geena Davis, music impresario Quincy Jones, former boxer Muhammad Ali, Latin jazz musician Tito Puente and comedian Bill Cosby.

In examining that line-up, some things stand out: The implicit affirmative action selection process at work and the importance of celebrity status over scholarly achievement. Also, if there is a choice between liberal and conservative, go with the liberal.

Surely this is a perfectly accurate depiction of university life. In the past 30 years, affirmative action sentiment has become ensconced in the thinking of higher education officials, notwithstanding the Supreme Court's Hopwood vs. Texas decision, which repudiated affirmative action as a principle.

Obscure names who engage in serious research are routinely ignored. Mr. Cosby doesn't even know how many honorary degrees he has received. He adds glitter to the graduation experience for students and parents, and that's what counts.

In the celebrity category are wealthy people who presumably are, or could become, contributors to the university.

Georgia State University, for example, honored J. Mack Robinson, who gave $10 million to its college of business. Like wealthy people who want an ambassadorship, money provides critical leverage in the honorary degree market.

Most of the time recipients don't even have to speak for their honor. Showing up, donning a robe and sitting on a platform for a couple of hours are all that's necessary.

Left wing domination

People like Theodore Hesburgh, former president of Notre Dame University, have become virtual professionals at the business of getting honorary degrees. It helps, of course, to have a left-wing pedigree, in large part because universities embody only one political view, now cast as an orthodoxy.

Jules Feiffer, the cartoonist, Sister Helen Prejean, the author of "Dead Man Walking," and Noam Chomsky, linguistics professor and political pamphleteer, receive their degrees as much for their political views as their accomplishments.

In Mr. Chomsky's case, his political views are distinctly anti-American, a position that doesn't hurt his chance of a degree during the commencement season.

There is indeed little doubt that honorary degrees represent the values of universities. On the other hand, these degrees are no longer related to the purpose for which they were intended.

The custom of bestowing them is centuries old, a practice Americans borrowed from their English forebears. At England's Oxford University, the ceremony at which honorary degrees are granted is known as Encaenia, the Greek word for "festival of renewal."

This renewal was once understood to be scholarship that enhanced the fund of human knowledge, or else a display of courage, fortitude or integrity. A popular singer or a .300 baseball lifetime hitter did not qualify.

Nowadays, however, politics, money and celebrity status matter most at American commencements. The university world has changed, and not for the better. One can only wonder what message today's graduates actually imbibe from their commencement speakers.

A Founder's view

Thomas Jefferson, one of the Founding Fathers, believed universities should not grant these honors. He feared that a university board of trustees would get caught up in political or religious enthusiasms rather than selecting a candidate on scholarly merit. To this day the University of Virginia, which Jefferson founded, does not grant honorary degrees.

Jefferson was right. University boards of trustees have lost their way. The goal of honoring genuine scholarship has been vitiated in today's whirlpool of fevered opinion. Instead, celebrities are put on display to entertain and keep the ceremony light.

Herbert London is the John M. Olin professor of humanities at New York University and president of the Indianapolis-based Hudson Institute. He wrote this essay for Bridge News.

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