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Honor Roll: Colleges Dole Out Honorary Degrees to Star-Studded, Curious Cast

May 12, 2016
by Martin Snapp

This weekend commencement season gets into full swing, with colleges and universities across the country bestowing honorary degrees on the great and the good as part of their graduation celebrations.

Some notable recipients over the years: 

  • Donald Trump, who was named an honorary Doctor of Business Administration by Scotland’s Robert Gordon University in 2010, only to have it revoked last year following his comments about Mexicans
  • Kanye West, who was named an honorary Doctor of Music last year by the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, whose president said he decided to honor the rapper after West mentioned the school in an interview. (“I thought, ‘Wow! This guy is saying art school is cool! This man deserves an honorary doctorate from us!'”)
  • Benjamin Franklin, who received an honorary master’s from William and Mary in 1756 and doctorates from St. Andrews in 1759 and Oxford in 1762
  • Johannes Brahms, who received an honorary doctorate from the University of Breslau in 1873 and composed the famous Academic Festival Overture in appreciation
  • J.K. Rowling, who holds honorary degrees from six different schools (St. Andrews, Exeter, Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Edinburgh Napier, and Harvard)
  • Kermit the Frog, named a Doctor of Amphibious Letters by Long Island University in 1996

Kermit—or, if you prefer, Dr. Frog—gave the most serious acceptance speech of any of them, reminding his audience that when they are saving the environment, they are saving the homes of many of his relatives.

A few schools eschewed the practice of honorary degrees altogether—chief among them UC Berkeley, which stopped giving them in 1972. The official reason at the time: “Concerns were raised about the criteria being used for selecting candidates…and whether the awarding of honorary degrees served any useful purpose for the university.” But former Chancellor and UC President Clark Kerr was more candid later about why Cal halted the practice amid increasing protests over the Vietnam War and widening political divisions. “As things got hotter, they couldn’t give them on merit,” he said. “They had to be concerned with audience reaction, which for sometimes quirky reasons couldn’t always be anticipated.”

Only once since 1972 has Cal’s ban on honorary degrees been lifted—in 2009, when 42 Japanese American former students, whose education was interrupted when they were clapped in detention camps after Pearl Harbor, received honorary degrees, along with relatives of 78 other students who had died or were too ill to attend. All the recipients wore leis of blue-and-gold origami cranes.

So who holds the record for receiving the most honorary degree? Nobody keeps track of such things, but a certain contender is Bill Cosby, who has been awarded more than 60. Of course, in light of the recent accumulation of old rape allegations against him, he’s also on track for the record for most revoked honorary degrees. To date, three colleges—Drexel, Pittsburgh and Drew—have yanked his degrees, and more than a dozen say they are considering it as well.  (Thus far Cosby’s tied for honorary degree revocations with Zimbabwe’s dictator Robert Mugabe.) Austrian zoologist Konrad Lorenz, who won the Nobel Prize in 1973, had his honorary degree from the University of Salzburg revoked posthumously last year after recent revelations that he was a fervent Nazi before and during World War II. But Yale, which awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1967, says it has never rescinded an honorary degree and has no plans to do so now.

And in a deliberate snub, Oxford, which had an unbroken tradition of awarding honorary degrees to every British prime minister who had attended the school, refused to award one to alumna Margaret Thatcher in 1985 as a protest against her cuts in funding for higher education.

But not everyone who is awarded an honorary degree wants it. Arizona State professor Roald Hoffmann, who won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1981, picks and chooses. “Every year I accept some and turn down some,” he has said, adding that he rejects it if the school in question “is either a place where I have no friends, or I perceive they are using me for publicity to get prestige for themselves.”

But there is one honorary degree he gleefully accepted—from Yale in 1980. “Two times, when I had applied to college, and, later, when I applied for a job after getting my Ph.D., I was rejected by Yale. They [the honorary degree committee] didn’t know that, but it made a good opening line for my speech.”

Students graduating

Besides Cal, another college with a long tradition of not giving honorary degrees is Penn State—much to Penn State’s relief when, having never awarded iconic football coach Joe Paterno an honorary degree, the school didn’t need to revoke it.

But there once was a time when Cal was positively profligate in awarding honorary degrees. The first two were retirement presents to the hired help—Andrew J. Moulder in 1872 and Robert E.C. Stearns in 1881, on the occasion of each’s retirement as secretary to the Regents.

Recipients seven and eight were two presidents: William McKinley in 1901, just three months before his assassination, and his successor, Teddy Roosevelt, two years later. The other chief executives so honored were Harry Truman In 1948, John F. Kennedy in 1962, and Stanford man Herbert Hoover in 1935.

Over the years, the list came to include World War II commanders Admiral Chester Nimitz in 1943 and Gen. Jimmy Doolittle in 1948; Secretaries of State Elihu Root in 1923 and Dean Rusk in 1961; Civil War historians Alan Nevins (who leaned North) in 1963 and Douglas Southall Freeman (who leaned South) in 1947; Bill Hewlett, who got an honorary degree from Cal on the same day in 1966 that his partner, David Packard, was getting one from UC Santa Cruz; U.S. Chief Justice Earl Warren in 1954; Labor Secretary Frances Perkins in 1935; novelist Willa Cather in 1931; columnist Walter Lippmann in 1933; Hull House founder Jane Addams in 1935; and industrialist Stephen Bechtel in 1954.

Oh yes, and the Shah of Iran in 1964.

Several eminent Cal professors have also been honored, including psychology professor Edward Tolman (after whom Tolman Hall is named) in 1959; English professor George R. Stewart (who is probably better known these days as the author of the science fiction classic “Earth Abides”) in 1963; physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the Atomic Bomb, in 1948; and chemist Joel Hildebrand, whose Saturday morning lectures on the day of the Big Game in the 1940s and ’50s were must-see events because he used the magic of chemistry to turn red and white substances into blue and gold, in 1954.

But no longer.

In 1981 the university created a successor to honorary degrees—the Berkeley Medal, which is not awarded every year, only on special occasions. It is given to individuals “whose exceptionally distinguished contributions to society advance the university’s ideals and goals, and whose careers have benefited the public beyond the demands of tradition, rank, or direct service to Berkeley.”

Recipients are a Who’s Who of global politicians. Their numbers include Bill Clinton (2002), Al Gore (2009), Jimmy Carter (2007), UN Secretary General Kofi Annan (1998), human rights activist Rigoberta Menchu (1993), Philippine President Corazon Aquino (1986), Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo (2007), French President Francois Mitterrand (1984), and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl ((1991).

But what if you’re feeling honorary degree envy and want one of your own? No problem.

Other Berkeley Medal winners include former Cal chancellors Glenn Seaborg (1992), Ira Michael Heyman (1993) and Chang-Ling Tien (1997), former Chancellor and UC President Clark Kerr (2004), and, in a sentimental gesture, the university’s longtime head of public ceremonies Garff Wilson, aka “the unidentified man on the right,” greeter to all official visitors to the campus and composer of the legendary Andy Smith eulogy, which is read aloud to a hushed Greek Theater bonfire rally every year on the eve of the Big Game (1982).

Cynics say honorary degrees are more about money and publicity for the college than honor for the recipients. calls the practice “a big business,” citing several Ivy League schools that have significantly upped the number of such degrees in recent years, including Yale, which has awarded 2,800 in all, Penn, which has given as many as 56 in a single year, and Harvard, which has given 64 percent of its honorary degrees in just the last 15 years.

But what if you’re feeling honorary degree envy and want one of your own? No problem. The University of Berkley (an online institution not to be confused with UC Berkeley) will issue honorary doctorates “to a select group of highly accomplished individuals such as yourself.” You can choose between a Doctor of Science (D.Sc.), Doctor of Literature (D.Litt.), Doctor of Laws (L.L.D), Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.), Doctor of Humane Letters (D.H.L), Doctor of Art or Administration (D.A.), Doctor of Divinity (D.D.) or Doctor of Humanities (D.Hum.), “whichever title you feel your accomplishments best merit.”

All you have to do is send them a brief autobiographical sketch, plus a $2,000 “honorarium contribution to cover processing and handling.”

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