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Posted at 3:22 PM ET, 10/22/2009

Dolly Parton? Michelle Obama? Who should get an honorary degree?

By Valerie Strauss

First Lady Michelle Obama is eligible to receive an honorary degree from George Washington University, the student newspaper reports today, because the Board of Trustees just approved her.

It is not yet clear that she will receive a degree, but The Hatchet quotes a school official saying that he expects her to get one in the spring, especially if she agrees to deliver the commencement address. That would certainly be a coup for GWU.

Honorary degrees are given by colleges and universities at their commencement ceremonies, though the selection process can take months. Sometimes students are involved, sometimes not, and each school has its own criteria for recipients.

The degrees are said to honor someone’s work in their own field. It is a way, schools say, to recognize excellence.

The Answer Sheet wonders, though, if it is a way for some schools to get famous people to attend their graduation ceremonies.

A blogpost earlier this year at the CafeMom web site
says that Dolly Parton received an honorary degree from The University of Tennessee for her "role as a cultural ambassador, philanthropist, and lifelong advocate for education." She accepted the doctorate by saying, "So when people say something about ’Double-D,’ they’ll be thinking of something entirely different."

Meanwhile some students say they think that honorary degrees devalue the degree they have worked--and paid--to receive.

Do you think anybody should receive an honorary degree? If so, why and who?

By Valerie Strauss  | October 22, 2009; 3:22 PM ET
Categories:  Higher Education  | Tags:  George Washington University, Michelle Obama, honorary degrees  
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"Honorary degrees" are worthless crap that devalue the institutions that hand them out. It's right up there with movie stars testifying to Congress.

Posted by: KS100H | October 22, 2009 4:20 PM | Report abuse

Who has a problem with this? Really? The same people that did not want the president to tell their kids to do well in school and try their best? Would these same people be complaining if it were Barbara Bush?

This crazy partisanship crap spilling over into education is just dumb. If GWU can get the first lady to speak that is great. If they want to present her with an honorary degree that's great to. She is definately smart-accomplished enough to have earned it compared to others that received the same honor.

Posted by: A-Contrario | October 22, 2009 6:31 PM | Report abuse

Stephen Colbert received an honorary degree in Fine Arts from Knox College and never stops talking about it. He was thrilled because he spoke there too...But what has he done for Knox College? He put it on the map!

Posted by: carolineC1 | October 22, 2009 7:54 PM | Report abuse

Re: me hating
I'm not knocking Michelle Obama for getting an honorary degree. I think honorary degrees (as I've seen them handed out) are meaningless titles intended to get a speaker to show up or to thank a big donor. The shame isn't on her, it's on the school.

My Alma Mater didn't award its first honorary degree until after I had graduated but now they hand them out like PEZ candies.

Posted by: KS100H | October 22, 2009 11:01 PM | Report abuse

If you're indiscriminate in handing them out, you devalue them and the institution.

At the same time, I'm not sure that anyone ever got a job because they listed their honorary degree on a job application.

On the other hand - "Oh, he has a degree from University of x. They gave out so many honorary degrees that I don't think we'll hire this guy."

Posted by: cmecyclist | October 23, 2009 4:22 AM | Report abuse

Several years ago, I suggested to the alumni magazine of my alma mater (an Ivy League school) that it publish an article on the policies involved in the awarding of honorary degrees. In essence, I wanted to know the content of the University's governing directive in this area. Specifically: 1.) What the nomination and selection criteria were; 2.) Whether quotas of any kind existed - by category of achievement, sex, race, or on any other basis (Past awards suggest that quotas are indeed an aspect of the process.); 3.) Whether a formal or tacitly implied quid pro quo (e.g., a large donation from prominent, well-endowed recipients) was required/expected/suggested; 4.) Who actually had the ultimate authority to determine the recipients; 5.) How many such awards did the University intend to make per year. The answer: Stonewalling. Needless to say, that response only deepened my suspicion that revelations surrounding the topic would be controversial. Rhetorical question: Why does this information not reside in the public domain? What is it that needs to be hidden from scrutiny?

Posted by: Lawrence_Kelley | October 23, 2009 5:07 AM | Report abuse

If schools want to honor excellent achievement in fields that they teach, they should come up with an award called "the U of X [Author, Researcher, Leader, etc] Achievement Award." Or is that too direct?

Honorary degrees are bad for three reasons. 1) They're clearly a bribe to commencement speakers. 2) They're an attempt to take ownership of a small piece of a powerful person's success. 3)Most importantly, they're essentially lies. Undergraduate degrees certify that you've demonstrated certain basic knowledge and abilities, while pHDs certify an ability to do very in-depth, rigorous research in one's field.

I'm glad my alma mater (MIT) has never given an honorary degree in its history.

Posted by: hbc1 | October 23, 2009 5:30 AM | Report abuse

With all of the problems in today's world, is this really that much of a concern? Lots of people have received honorary degrees, is this the greatest issue impacting higher ed?

Posted by: 12345leavemealone | October 23, 2009 7:36 AM | Report abuse

How exactly do honorary degrees "devalue" real degrees? Do you really think the average person will hear about Dolly Parton's honorary degree and think she actually attended that school and wrote a dissertation? Of course not.

There is no confusion in anyone's mind about the value of an honorary vs. an earned degree. It's apples and oranges.

Posted by: wrybread1 | October 23, 2009 8:07 AM | Report abuse

I've little problem with the awarding of honorary degrees, but I am bothered by those persons who believe this justifies them with regularly taking the title of "doctor" alongside their name, as some do.

Posted by: GRich1 | October 23, 2009 12:44 PM | Report abuse

Honorary degrees can be good when given to deserving people whose achievements are not fully appreciated and who do not have advanced degrees of their own. (Sorry, Michelle)

The honorary degree is a way to recognize people who did not follow the traditional path to a degree but who have demonstrated expertise of the highest order.

Posted by: writinron | October 23, 2009 4:19 PM | Report abuse

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