For over three hundred years, U.S. colleges and universities have bestowed honorary degrees on people for their lasting impact on society – politicians, musicians, writers, actors, clergymen, corporate CEOs, sports figures and then some.
Such diverse individuals as author Elie Weisel, comedian Bill Cosby, and former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson have been awarded honorary degrees. But what does it all mean?
For the Sake of the Honor
It all began at Harvard University in 1692 when the Ivy League school gave the first honorary degree in the United States to Puritan clergyman Increase Mather. However, honorary degrees had been granted for over 200 years before this (the University of Oxford gave out its first honorary degree in the 1470s). Then, the degree was given mainly to scholars.
While they’re a nice recognition and probably look good hanging on the wall, honorary degrees are not ‘real’ degrees; in other words, being awarded an honorary degree is not the same as earning an actual doctorate. In fact, an honorary degree is a degree honoris causa, Latin for ‘for the sake of the honour’.
They are not used to further one’s career, fatten one’s bank account or dress up one’s resume. If anything, honorary degrees draw more attention to the college or university bestowing the honour, since it ties them to the (usually famous or well-known) recipient.
Many schools award honorary degrees to their commencement speakers, though being chosen as a keynote speaker does not always mean that the individual will also be selected for the honorary award (this might be true when the commencement speaker is paid for his or her services). Nor are all honorary degree recipients commencement speakers.
For instance, Princeton University keeps its list of recipients a secret until the graduation ceremony, with the university’s president typically delivering the commencement address.
Many schools present the degree to famous alumni. Honorary degree nominees can be named by individuals or faculty members. Recipients are ultimately chosen through a voting process by a school’s trustees or board of regents.