Keeping the Honor in Honorary Degrees

By    //    Volume 19,  Number 4   //    July/August 2011

As the founder of the University of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson was incredibly prescient, given today’s debates over honorary degrees and boards’ roles in bestowing them. He mandated that his institution not award honorary degrees; only medals in law, architecture, and citizen leadership are annually conferred.

Yet Jefferson may have been right for the wrong reasons. It would be comforting if we knew that our third president took that bold step to forestall controversy of the kind that has recently bedeviled the City University of New York, over an honorary degree to Pulitzer-Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner, or several years earlier Washington University in St. Louis, in the case of anti-feminist Phyllis Schlafly, and Northwestern University, over the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, President Obama’s erstwhile pastor. Regrettably, the rationale for Jefferson’s edict was apparently not the avoidance of controversy but rather of degree granting. Although it’s never been quite clear why he abhorred degrees, even those earned by dedicated students, he occasionally made disparaging mention of “meaningless credentials” in place of “a genuine quest for knowledge and learning.”

In fact, Jefferson was so averse to awarding degrees of any kind that he refused to let the university confer any until well after his death. Had he anticipated the flaps over Kushner, Schlafly, and Wright, we have not the vaguest idea how he would have responded; banning all degrees made the issue moot in his time. (Curiously, Jefferson’s constraint on awarding honorary degrees seems not to have inhibited his receipt of them. When invitations appeared from the early colonial colleges, he seemed eager to catch the next stage coach. His Harvard honorary LL.D. was granted in 1787, with no qualifications.)

While the vast majority of American colleges and universities annually honor alumni, donors, eminent citizens, and others through not only degrees, but also named buildings, chairs, and other significant institutions, abstention has been by no means unique to Jefferson or U.Va. Indiana University’s revered and legendary late president, Herman B. Wells, insisted that no campus building could ever be named for a living person, however accomplished. Pursuant to that prophylactic policy, even his own extraordinary legacy could not be formally recognized on a structure until after his death. The wisdom of such a policy has been often acclaimed and consistently endorsed by Indiana’s trustees. Wells’ sagacity was also well illustrated not long ago by American University’s decision not to place the name of major donor—Adnan Khashoggi, a controversial Saudi arms dealer—on a campus building despite receipt of a substantial gift and the donor’s expectation.

Why Honorary Degrees?

Four points about honorary degrees are of specific relevance to governing boards. First, the conferring by boards of several sorts of honors is an extremely important and highly prized trustee perquisite; it also remains one of the few that boards may not delegate to others. Second, the process for awarding honorary degrees, naming buildings, and designating endowed chairs remains murky at most institutions, in contrast to the conferral of earned degrees, which is typically a clear and orderly process.

Third, the very basis for bestowing such academic honors is often surprisingly unclear. Although most institutions rely upon a special committee for that purpose, the rules that guide that process are often obscure and arcane—in fairness, at least partly because of their infrequent invocation. Virtually all institutions that confer honorary degrees do so only once a year. Ohio State University is the only example I could find of more frequent awards—at each quarterly OSU commencement.

Fourth, it’s also unclear what recourse a potential honoree has if certain honors are withheld or revoked. If, for instance, a board were to consider a resolution commending a cadre of accomplished professors, but were then to table or withdraw one such action among dozens, the would-be honoree would presumably be disappointed, but he or she would almost certainly have no legal recourse.

For example, when the State of New Jersey took action to honor writer Amiri Baraka as its poet laureate, but then canceled the tribute because of anti-Semitic content in Baraka’s widely publicized poem “Somebody Blew Up America,” no litigation ensued. Even strong First Amendment champions doubted that the withdrawal of so discretionary an encomium— carrying no salary and minimal duties—would be subject to legal action. (Although Baraka adamantly refused to resign his position, the New Jersey legislature eventually mooted the issue by abolishing the post of poet laureate.) And while the conferring of honorary degrees, naming of buildings, and other such formal tributes by governing boards seem substantially more likely to be challenged, there appear to be no reported cases of legal action over the withdrawal or cancelation of an honorary degree or the sandblasting of a building once named for a now-disgraced donor.

One amusing anecdote comes to mind. When the legendary Louisiana Governor Huey Long opted to name the municipal New Orleans Lakefront Airport in honor of one of his loyal cronies, Abe Shushan, a subsequent conviction on tax evasion charges caused the state levee board to remove all possible references to Shushan. That proved a daunting task; Shushan had managed to have his initials pervasively and indelibly engraved even on ordinary hardware, floor tiles, bathroom fixtures and such, as well as on all sides of the structure, and for the benefit of travelers passing over the main runway, in unmistakably prominent letters on the building’s roof. The Lakefront Airport now bears the cryptic Federal Aviation Authority code initials NEW.

Hints of Scandal

Clearly, the University of Virginia remains in a small minority of institutions that declines ever to confer honorary degrees—including Cornell University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Rice University, Stanford University, and Vanderbilt University. The temptation to bestow such tributes proves simply irresistible to many boards, while the chance to acclaim major donors, academic leaders, and prominent citizens evokes keen interest and a healthy (usually) competition among degree sponsors anxious to promote their candidates over other promising prospects. Certain restrictions exist, such as Indiana University’s insistence on a strong Hoosier tie as predicate to an honorary degree.

Ivy League and other eminent research institutions tend to favor accomplished (if not always legendary) honorees. Some years ago, a huge crowd eagerly awaited revelation of Harvard University’s honorees, whose identities at that time remained confidential until they appeared in the commencement procession. Rumors began to stir that one plausible honoree had been sighted in Harvard Yard. Savvy crowd watchers soon anticipated that the noted pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock would be recognized for his books on child care. There was some disappointment when it turned out that the day’s most notable honoree—and commencement speaker—was instead Dr. Paul-Henri Spaak, first president of the United Nations General Assembly (1946) and later secretary general of NATO (1957–61). Harvard has become more open in recent years about its honorees, even as some confidentiality persists.

Most honorary-degree nominations prove to be routine, although not always without controversy and occasionally with intense debate. Several recent examples illustrate the potential perils. In spring 2008, Washington University in St. Louis announced its intent to confer an honorary doctor of humane letters degree on Phyllis Schlafly, the controversial conservative politician. Substantial numbers of students, especially women, and a significant group of faculty members, as well as alumni and others in the Washington University family, immediately denounced the award. Protests sprang up in the few days between the announcement and the ceremony. But the university stood its ground, its trustees explaining carefully the process that the board observed in recommending such encomia and citing the variety and diversity of previous honorees. A Washington University spokeperson vigorously defended Schlafly’s degree on grounds of serving as a “lightning rod for vigorous debate on difficult issues where differences of opinion are profound and passionate.” He also noted the wide variety of honorarydegree recipients in the university’s past. Schlafly received the degree, and life in St. Louis quickly returned to normal.

Far less fortuitous was Northwestern University’s selection of Wright, who had recently served as Barack Obama’s pastor. At almost the moment that Washington University affirmed its choice of Schlafly, Wright learned from officials in Evanston that his prospective degree was being withdrawn. University President Henry S. Bienen explained in a letter to Wright his fear that the pastor’s presence could disrupt the ceremony. “In light of the controversy surrounding statements made by you that have recently been publicized,” explained Bienen, “the celebratory character of Northwestern’s commencement would be affected by our conferring of this honorary degree.” The reference was to volatile and widely publicized comments Wright had made about race and America; those comments caused then-Senator Obama to distance himself from the outspoken pastor during the 2008 presidential primary race.

Regulating Speech?

The Wright incident appears to be one of the remarkably few occasions on which any major university has taken so drastic a step. Nonetheless, legal recourse would have been unlikely; Northwestern, like Washington University, is a private institution whose actions are largely outside the purview of First Amendment dictates. Although the First Amendment protects virtually all forms of “speech” and “press,” its safeguards apply only to governmental constraints and not to private regulation (e.g., corporate limits on expression). Save for rare situations—an exclusive corporate monopoly licensed by government action, for example—only public speakers are affected. Thus, other than having to observe federal statutes against employment discrimination by reason of age, race, gender, nationality, and so forth, independent institutions are substantially free to act as they wish in a wide range of situations.

Uniquely, the state of California has decreed by statute that all non-religiously affiliated colleges and universities must, in matters of student speech and association, abide by the precepts that govern California’s public campuses. But that singular constraint applies only to expressive activity by students, and even then only on campuses that have no formal ties to communities of faith. No comparable law or regulation governing free speech or expression exists in the other 49 states.

When it comes to publicly supported institutions, however, the landscape is totally different. When in early May of this year the trustees of the City University of New York announced they would deny an honorary degree to Kushner on the basis of statements he made about Israel’s founding, the outcry was instantaneous and from many quarters. Such action was clearly unprecedented among public university boards, and the board’s executive committee quickly reversed the decision. (See sidebar “Statement by City University Board Chair Benno C. Schmidt, Regarding the Awarding of an Honorary Degree”)

The closest recent analogue (although one that is still rather distinct) is the decision last year by the board of the University of Illinois at Chicago to deny emeritus status to 1960s radical professor William Ayers, co-founder of the Weather Underground, whose alleged bombing campaign led to the death of a police officer in San Francisco in 1970. Such action was especially meaningful to Illini Board Chair Christopher G. Kennedy, son of the late Robert Kennedyand now president of Merchandise Mart Properties, Inc., who declared with understandable passion that, “There can be no place in a democracy to celebrate political assassinations or to honor those who do so.” Moreover, the denial of emeritus status to one among dozens of Illinois professors likely to receive that honor in a given year hardly seems to qualify as a major academic sanction.

The denial or withdrawal of an honorary degree would, however, be a different matter. As the public response to the Kushner announcement illustrated, the rescinding of such a highly visible encomium for an acclaimed playwright or other prominent citizen inevitably would convey profound implications. Meanwhile, the summary nature of the CUNY board’s initial denial—triggered by a single trustee—seemed to reflect a startling lack of attention both to academic freedom and due process. Although the board’s executive committee, under the seasoned leadership of its chair, Benno C. Schmidt (former president of Yale University and one of the nation’s most preeminent First Amendment scholars), soon reversed the decision and allowed Kushner’s degree to proceed unimpeded, the potential implications are vital for trustees and governing boards.

 Statement by City University Board Chair Benno C. Schmidt, Regarding the Awarding of an Honorary Degree

”I believe the Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees needs to reconsider the board’s decision to table the motion to approve the award of an honorary degree to Tony Kushner. I would not ordinarily ask for reconsideration of a decision so recently taken. But when the board has made a mistake of principle, and not merely of policy, review is appropriate and, indeed, mandatory.

Freedom of thought and expression is the bedrock of any university worthy of the name….It is not right for the board to consider politics in connection with the award of honorary degrees except in extreme cases not presented by the facts here. The proposed honorary degree for Mr. Kushner would recognize him for his extraordinary talent and contribution to the American theater. Like other honorary degrees, it is not intended to reflect approval or disapproval for political views not relevant to the field for which the recipient is being honored. Any other view is impractical as well as wrong in principle. Would we want it thought that we approve of the politics of everyone who receives a CUNY honorary degree?

….In addition, I am concerned about the procedural unfairness of our action. The objection arose at the eleventh hour without any opportunity for research and preparation necessary for the presentation of a full and balanced appraisal. Accordingly, the chancellor and I agree that reconsideration of the motion to table the honorary degree for Mr. Kushner is not only the right thing to do, but is our obligation.”

Four Guidelines

Four precepts merit close attention whenever boards confer honors in any form, including degrees, endowed chairs, or named buildings, programs, and the like.

First, although First Amendment principles technically govern only public colleges and universities, their independent counterparts wisely observe those principles on a voluntary basis. Thus, when Washington University conferred the honorary doctor of humane letters degree on Schlafly, despite protests on campus, it acted in the best traditions of academic and expressive freedom. Northwestern’s concurrent denial of a comparable honor to Wright stands in contrast and is ironic considering that the same university, under the leadership of at least four presidents, steadfastly refused to dismiss engineering professor Arthur Butz despite his widely proclaimed denial that the Holocaust ever occurred.

Second, far greater clarity and consistency is warranted in regard to the types of honors that may merit formal board recognition. The denial of emeritus status upon Bill Ayers’ retirement from the University of Illinois at Chicago should be deemed merely a low-level denial of a tribute of relatively limited value. Somewhat more problematic, though still probably on the discretionary side of the line, would be New Jersey’s cancellation of Baraka’s appointment as poet laureate because of his contentious post-9/11 verse. The cancellation was based on volatile (some people would say inciting) speech in Baraka’s poems, and the legislative intervention rendered the issue moot.

Denial or revocation of an honorary degree, on the other hand, should be recognized as a legally cognizable injury, clearly in the case of a public university board, and on comparable policy grounds for trustees of an independent institution. Whether or not such an injury is legally actionable could, of course be questioned. However, First Amendment experts could develop a plausible claim to that effect, and I’d be inclined to join them, given the importance of such an honor and its widespread publicity. The list of acceptable reasons to deny or rescind an honorary degree is extremely short, and includes only plagiarism, major crimes, the act or omission of an act clearly injurious to the institution, and only perhaps a few others. Similarly, a post-approval change of heart in designating the holder of an endowed chair, or the formal naming of a campus building, merits at the very least a coherent and transparent process, with the board fully accountable for any deviation or cancellation.

Third, equally compelling is the case for articulating clear standards both of substance and process. A great many institutions may have on the books crystal-clear regulations for the awarding of earned degrees but far less formality when it comes to honoraries. In the Schlafly and Wright cases, for example, journalists dug deeply into each university’s policies and procedures to determine precisely how and when those particular boards could properly deny or cancel such an encomium. Recent experience, most especially the Kushner case, should guide all boards to develop and promulgate clear and transparent rules for conferring what should be the happiest and most welcome of formal tributes. Due process, in this context as in others, demands no less.

Finally, and perhaps most important, academic freedom and free expression should always govern the conferring of such awards.

Given higher education’s paramount commitment to free inquiry and the search for truth, the conveying of such honors should reflect an institution’s and board’s highest ideals and values and recognize scholarly and artistic excellence. Of course, countervailing needs may intervene; free speech cannot always prevail, especially in cases involving safety and security, as when Illinois decided not to confer an emeritus status on Ayers. Indeed, the chancellor of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln followed suit by cancelling a planned lecture by Ayers; the rationale was the clear consensus by Nebraska security experts that the volume of hate mail and threatening messages created a potentially unsafe climate in which to bring Ayers to campus. Hamilton College, several years earlier, similarly blocked a planned lecture by Ward Churchill, the controversial former University of Colorado at Boulder professor whose post-9/11 anti-Semitic remarks drew public outcry. It was on a comparable basis that Northwestern, despite its persistent protection of a blatant Holocaust denier, withdrew Wright’s honor. Such instances are and should be remarkably rare.

Yet in the end, what remains crucial is not primarily the outcome of particular, invariably contentious cases. Far more vital is the imperative for governing boards to adopt and implement guiding principles that reflect abiding values such as academic freedom and due process.

Questions for Boards to Ask Before Awarding an Honorary Degree

• On what basis, and for what reasons, should the board choose (or continue to choose) to award honorary degrees?

• What standards and criteria should the board adopt and publicize for making such awards? (Some boards might limit such honors to present or former citizens of a particular state. Others might focus on professional achievement or stature. Some institutions insist the honoree be personally present to receive the award, while other institutions permit conferral in absentia. Simple generosity to a an institution would not normally be so recognized.)

• By what process should recipients of such honors be selected? (A special faculty-student committee represents a rather typical initial step.) And what mechanism would best serve to bring promising recipients to the attention of that committee and eventually the board?

• What process best ensures that the board will meticulously review and approve each honorary degree before it has been approved and conferred?

• What form of announcement or publicity best meets the institution’s needs? (Some universities— notably Harvard University—have been secretive, withholding the identity of honorees until the moment the commencement procession emerges. Other institutions announce such honors well ahead of time, with attendant pre-commencement publicity.)