Op Ed: On the relevance of honourary degrees

It is common, with exceptions of the MIT, Stanford, and Cornell, for prominent universities to grant honourary degrees to people earned them through years of study, but are deemed worthy of them for by some particular merit by way of fame and fortune. It is considered a tribute of esteem and respect to an individual’s achievement and career, as in Billy Connolly’s honoris causa doctorate given to him by our university in June for being an ambassador of the city of Glasgow and an inspiration through his successful comedic career.
Now that another academic year is about to start, it’s time to reflect on the real value of university education and degrees, and whether it is still appropriate to award honourary degrees to people who haven’t had to pour their blood, sweat, and (literal) tears into them.
In my opinion, they are the legacy of a past time, in which having a university degree wasn’t considered as just a mean to increase your career perspective and improve your overall education, but rather an end point which gave people some sort of “cultural power” over the uneducated masses. It was a way to convey privilege within a ruling class, as universities, religious and political leaders were all interconnected. It is unclear why this tradition has continued until now, and finding a straightforward reason is neither easy nor useful. They take meaning away from the so-called “earned” degrees, juxtaposed to their being “unearned”, undervaluing the commitment and hard work of millions of students worldwide. Moreover, the selection process for the recipients of honourary degrees are seldom clear-cut, as it normally happens in a confidential committee of the governing body. Even though some universities involve a wider pool of academic staff in the process, students’ opinions are never taken into consideration. As understandable this could be, since students could be swayed to nominate someone the university would never contemplate, it adds to the offence of bestowing the same honour as them upon someone they might not know or recognise as deserving.
It must be said that universities are extremely careful when choosing who to honour every year. In fact, they are aware that the operation is a mutual exchange of respect with the receiver, a sort of pact in which they promise to be a positive ambassador for the university’s name. Moreover, those who are granted an honourary degree have usually greatly contributed to the cause for which they are honoured. However, they are used to thank a generous donor or to attract attention on the university by awarding them to a celebrity.
The baseline is that an honourary degree is nothing more than a symbolic, meaningless piece of paper, sometimes awarded in a superficial manner for PR reasons of the university. In the latest years, it can be noticed that has almost become fashionable, some sort of a must-have, for people outside of the academic world to receive one. But what’s the point anyway? I find all this search of an empty honour representative of a society in which appearance is more important than substance, where it does not matter whether you actually know something or are someone, but only that you are able to prove it.
To conclude, I fear that honourary degrees are here to stay, as they are too embedded within our culture to eliminate them. However, for those of us who see them as shallow ways of promoting a university’s and individual’s image, there is the possibility to make our voices heard, maybe simply not speaking about them.

By Tommaso Giacomini