Honorary degree

Honorary degree

An honorary degree[1] or a degree honoris causa (Latin: "for the sake of the honour") is an academic degree for which a university (or other degree-awarding institution) has waived the usual requirements, such as matriculation, residence, study, and the passing of examinations. The degree is typically a doctorate or, less commonly, a master's degree, and may be awarded to someone who has no prior connection with the academic institution.

Usually the degree is conferred as a way of honoring a distinguished visitor's contributions to a specific field, or to society in general. The university often derives benefits by association with the person in question.


Historical origins and rationale

The practice dates back to the middle ages, when for various reasons a university might be persuaded, or otherwise see fit, to grant exemption from some or all of the usual statutory requirements for award of a degree. The earliest honorary degree on record was awarded to Lionel Woodville in the late 1470s by the University of Oxford.[2] He later became Bishop of Salisbury.

In the latter part of the sixteenth century, the granting of honorary degrees became quite common, especially on the occasion of royal visits to Oxford or Cambridge.[2] On the visit of James I to Oxford in 1605, for example, forty-three members of his retinue (fifteen of whom were earls or barons) received the degree of Master of Arts, and the Register of Convocation explicitly states that these were full degrees, carrying the usual privileges (such as voting rights in Convocation and Congregation).[2]

Modern practice

Honorary degrees are usually awarded at regular graduation ceremonies, at which the recipients are often invited to make a speech of acceptance before the assembled faculty and graduates – an event which often forms the highlight of the ceremony. Generally universities nominate several persons each year for honorary degrees; these nominees usually go through several committees before receiving approval. Those who are nominated are generally not told until a formal approval and invitation are made; often it is perceived that the system is shrouded in secrecy, and occasionally seen as political and controversial.[citation needed]

The term honorary degree is a slight misnomer: honoris causa degrees, being awarded by a university under the terms of its charter, may be considered to have technically the same standing, and to grant the same privileges and style of address as their substantive counterparts, except where explicitly stated to the contrary. In practice, however, such degrees tend to be popularly considered not to be of the same standing as substantive degrees, except perhaps where the recipient has demonstrated an appropriate level of academic scholarship that would ordinarily qualify them for the award of a substantive degree. Recipients of honorary degrees typically wear the same academic dress as recipients of substantive degrees, although there are a few exceptions: honorary graduands at the University of Cambridge wear the appropriate full-dress gown but not the hood, and those at the University of St Andrews wear a black cassock instead of the usual full-dress gown.

An ad eundem or jure dignitatis degree is sometimes considered honorary, although they are only conferred on an individual who has already achieved a comparable qualification at another university or by attaining an office requiring the appropriate level of scholarship.

Although higher doctorates such as DSc, DLitt, etc., are often awarded honoris causa, in many countries (notably England and Scotland, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand) it is possible formally to earn such a degree. This typically involves the submission of a portfolio of peer-refereed research, usually undertaken over a number of years, which has made a substantial contribution to the academic field in question. The university will appoint a panel of examiners who will consider the case and prepare a report recommending whether or not the degree be awarded. Usually, the applicant must have some strong formal connection with the university in question, for example full-time academic staff, or graduates of several years' standing.

Some universities, seeking to differentiate between substantive and honorary doctorates, have a degree (often DUniv, or Doctor of the University) which is used for these purposes, with the other higher doctorates reserved for formally-examined academic scholarship.

The Archbishop of Canterbury has the authority to award degrees. These "Lambeth degrees" are sometimes, erroneously, thought to be honorary; however the archbishops have for many centuries had the legal authority (originally as the representatives of the Pope, later confirmed by a 1533 Act of Henry VIII), to award degrees and regularly do so to people who have either passed an examination or are deemed to have satisfied the appropriate requirements.

Between the two extremes of honouring celebrities and formally assessing a portfolio of research, many universities use honorary degrees to recognize achievements of intellectual rigor comparable to an earned degree. Some learned societies award honorary fellowships in the same way as honorary degrees are awarded by universities for similar reasons.

Practical use

In some countries, recipients of an honorary doctorate may, if they wish, adopt the title of "Doctor".[citation needed] Many universities, however, request that an honorary graduate refrain from such practice. A typical example of university regulations is Honorary graduates may use the approved post-nominal letters. It is not customary, however, for recipients of an honorary doctorate to adopt the prefix 'Dr' .[3] In some universities, it is however a matter of personal preference for an honorary doctor to use the formal title of "Doctor", regardless of the background circumstances for the award. Written communications where an honorary doctorate has been awarded may include the letters "h.c." after the award to indicate that status.

Notable people using the honorary prefix include:

  • Benjamin Franklin, who received an honorary master's degree from The College of William and Mary in 1756, and doctorates from the University of St. Andrews in 1759 and the University of Oxford in 1762 for his scientific accomplishments. He thereafter referred to himself as "Doctor Franklin".[4]
  • Peter Hollingworth, AC, OBE, Governor-General of Australia from 2001 until 2003, styled himself as "Dr Hollingworth" while holding that office. This was one of several controversies attending his tenure as Governor-General since, although he held six honorary doctorates from Australian universities, it was (and remains) contrary to Australian tradition for the grantee of an honorary doctorate to use the title in public life. If there was any justification for this departure from convention, it lay in the fact that most people previously appointed to the position already held a formal title – such as a British knighthood or peerage, or a military rank – whereas Hollingworth's previous style, "The Most Reverend", derived from his former position as the Anglican Archbishop of Brisbane and was considered inappropriate for a person holding an official position in a country which maintains a formal separation between church and state. In any event, the situation was regularised on 21 May 2001, when Hollingworth was awarded the Lambeth degree of Doctor of Letters (DLitt) by the Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, in recognition of his research, publications, teaching and achievement in the field of Christian social ethics, social welfare and poverty in Australia and episcopal leadership.[5]
  • Billy Graham is regularly addressed as "Dr. Graham", though his highest earned degree is a BA in anthropology from Wheaton College.[6] He holds 20 honorary doctorates and has turned down nearly twice as many.[citation needed]
  • Ian Paisley holds an honorary Doctor of Divinity awarded by Bob Jones University, a conservative evangelical Christian college in Greenville, South Carolina.
  • Maya Angelou, who calls herself and is referred to by many as "Dr. Angelou" despite holding no undergraduate or advanced (non-honorary) degree.[7]
  • Booker T. Washington is often referred to as "Dr. Washington" after receiving an honorary doctorate from Dartmouth College.
  • The University of Exeter has awarded honorary D.Litt degrees and subsequently referred to the recipients as "Doctor".[8]
  • Terry Wogan has received an honorary doctorate from the University of Limerick and refers to himself as "Doctor" on air.
  • Judy MacArthur Clark CBE (Chief Inspector of the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Inspectorate, former President of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, and former Chair of the Farm Animal Welfare Council[9]) received an honorary doctorate of veterinary medicine and surgery (DVMS) from the University of Glasgow,[10] and refers to herself professionally as "Doctor".[11]
  • Ralph Stanley, the bluegrass artist, is referred to by many people[citation needed] and refers to himself as "Doctor" after being awarded an honorary Doctorate of Music from Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee, in 1976.
  • Hunter S. Thompson, journalist and creator of Gonzo journalism, received an honorary doctorate from the Universal Life Church in the late 1960s.[12] Thompson often insisted on the title, as did his alter ego Raoul Duke in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas who claimed to be a "Doctor of Journalism".
  • Stephen Colbert received an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts from Knox College in 2006. Since then, the credits of The Colbert Report jokingly refer to him as "Dr. Stephen T. Colbert, D.F.A." (which uses both the title "Dr." and a postnominal, which is improper). The same title is used in a recurring segment on the show, in which Colbert dispenses dubious medical advice despite his degree being Doctor of Fine Arts.
  • Mirza Ahmad received an honorary Doctor of Laws from Manchester Metropolitan University in 2007. Since then, the credits of every document produced by Birmingham City Council refer to him as "Dr. Mirza Ahmad LLD (hon), MBA., LL.M, Barrister".
  • Jakaya Kikwete, the current President of Tanzania, has often been referred to as "Dr. Kikwete" for his honorary degree received from the University of St. Thomas (Minnesota) in 2006.[13]

In the United Kingdom the author and lexicographer Samuel Johnson, who had some years earlier been unable (due to financial considerations) to complete his undergraduate studies at Pembroke College, Oxford, was awarded the degree of Master of Arts by diploma in 1755, in recognition of his scholarly achievements. In 1765, Trinity College, Dublin awarded him the degree of Doctor of Laws and in 1775 Oxford bestowed upon him the degree of Doctor of Civil Law by diploma. It is unclear how much these degrees count as "honorary", though, as they were bestowed in recognition of a specific, undoubtedly substantial and original scholarly work, and one that was arguably far more deserving than many other doctoral theses submitted at the time.[citation needed]

The recipient of an honorary degree may add the degree title postnominally, but it should always be made clear that the degree is honorary by adding "honorary" or "honoris causa" or "h.c." in parenthesis after the degree title. In some countries, a person who holds an honorary doctorate may use the title "Doctor" prenominally, abbreviated "Dr.h.c." or "Dr.(h.c.)". Sometimes, they use "Hon" before the degree letters, for example, "Hon DMus".

In recent years, some universities have adopted entirely separate post nominal titles for honorary degrees. This is in part due to the confusion that honorary degrees have caused. It is now common in certain countries to use certain degrees, such as LLD or HonD, as purely honorary. For instance, an honorary doctor of the Auckland University of Technology takes the special title HonD instead of the usual PhD Some universities, including the Open University grant Doctorates of the University (DUniv) to selected nominees, while awarding PhD or EdD degrees to those who have fulfilled the academic requirements.

Most American universities award the degrees of LLD (Doctor of Laws), the LittD (Doctor of Letters), the LHD (Doctor of Humane Letters), the ScD (Doctor of Science), the PedD (Doctor of Pedagogy) and the DD (Doctor of Divinity) only as honorary degrees. American universities do not have the system of "higher doctorates" used in the UK and somet other universities around the world.

Customary degrees (Ad eundem degrees)

Some universities and colleges also have the custom of awarding a master's degree to every scholar it appoints as a full professor who had never earned a degree there. At the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge many senior staff are granted the degree of Master of Arts after three years of service, and at Amherst College all tenured professors are awarded a Master of Arts degree at academic convocation in the autumn even though the school only offers an earned Bachelor of Arts degree (Amherst awards honorary doctorates at commencement in the spring to notable scholars and other special invitees). Brown University also awards tenured faculty, who do not have a Brown degree, the AM ad eundem.

These ad eundem degrees are earned degrees, not honorary, because they recognize formal learning.

Similarly a jure dignitatis degree is one awarded to someone who has demonstrated their eminence and scholarship by being appointed to a particular office. Thus, for example, a DD (Doctor of Divinity) might be conferred upon a bishop on the occasion of their consecration, or a judge created LLD (Legum Doctor) or DCL (Doctor of Civil Law) upon their appointment to the bench. These, also, are properly considered substantive rather than honorary degrees.


Some universities and colleges have been accused of granting honorary degrees in exchange for large donations. Honorary degree recipients, particularly those who have no prior academic qualifications, have sometimes been criticized if they insist on being called "Doctor" as a result of their award, as the honorific may mislead the general public about their qualifications.

The awarding of an honorary degree to political figures can prompt protests from faculty or students. In 2001, George W. Bush received an honorary degree from Yale University where he had earned his bachelor's degree in history in 1968. Some students and faculty chose to boycott the university's 300th commencement.[14] Andrew Card, who served as Bush's Chief of Staff from 2001–2006, ultimately chose not to speak when the University of Massachusetts-Amherst awarded him an honorary degree in 2007, in response to protests from students and faculty at the commencement ceremonies.[15]

In 1985, as a deliberate snub, the University of Oxford voted to refuse Margaret Thatcher an honorary degree in protest against her cuts in funding for higher education.[16] This award had previously been given to all Prime Ministers who had been educated at Oxford.

In 2005 at the University of Western Ontario, Dr. Henry Morgentaler, a gynecologist involved in a legal case decriminalizing abortion in Canada (R. v. Morgentaler), was made an honorary Doctor of Laws. Over 12,000 signatures were acquired[17] asking the UWO to reverse its decision to honor Dr. Morgentaler. Several protest rallies were held, including one on the day the honorary degree was bestowed (a counter petition to support Morgentaler's degree gained 10,000 signatures.[18])

Few people object when an honorary degree is awarded in a field that the awardee is noted for. McGill University's decision to grant musician Joni Mitchell an honorary Doctor of Music in 2004 was unopposed, although it was timed to coincide with a symposium about Mitchell's career.[19]

In 1996 Southampton College at Long Island University (now a campus of SUNY Stony Brook) awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Amphibious Letters to Muppet Kermit the Frog. Although some students objected to awarding a degree to a muppet, Kermit delivered an enjoyable commencement address and the small college received considerable press coverage.[20] It should be noted, too, that the degree was conferred in recognition of efforts in the area of environmentalism. Said the university: "His theme song, 'It's Not Easy Bein' Green,' has become a rallying cry of the environmental movement. Kermit has used his celebrity to spread positive messages in public service announcements for the National Wildlife Federation, National Parks Service, the Better World Society, and others."[21]

Some universities, like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology,[22] Cornell University,[23] Vanderbilt University, Stanford University,[24][25] the California Institute of Technology, Rice University [26] and the University of Virginia,[27] do not award honorary degrees. MIT does, however, on rare occasions award honorary professorships; Winston Churchill was so honored in 1949 and Salman Rushdie in 1993. Similarly, the Stanford Alumni Association occasionally awards the Degree of Uncommon Man/Woman to individuals who have given "rare and exceptional service" to the university.[28] Though UCLA has imposed a moratorium on awarding honorary degrees, it honors notable people with the UCLA Medal instead.[29]

The Philosophy Faculty at Cambridge courted controversy amongst the academic community in March 1992, when three of its members posed a temporary veto against the awarding an honorary doctorate to Jacques Derrida;[30] they and other non-cambridge proponents of analytic philosophy protested the granting on the grounds that Derrida's work "did not conform with accepted measures of academic rigor." Although the University eventually passed the motion, the episode did more to draw attention to the continuing antipathy between the analytic (of which Cambridge's faculty is a leading exponent) and the post-Hegelian continental philosophical traditions (with which Derrida's work is more closely associated).

In 2007 protesters demanded that the University of Edinburgh revoke an honorary degree awarded to Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe in 1984. The University subsequently revealed plans to review its honorary degree policy and strip certain figures of their honorary degrees who did not deserve them. When considering revoking the honorary degree of a political figure, such reasons as human rights abuse or political corruption would be considered. As a result, it was announced that Mugabe had been stripped of his honorary degree. The University also planned to have a more rigorous selection procedure regarding potential recipients of honorary degrees, in an attempt to rectify the trend of awarding degrees to celebrities.[31] Students at the University of Massachusetts Amherst also asked the university to revoke the honorary degree that was awarded to Mugabe over twenty years ago, and on June 12, 2008 the trustees unanimously rescinded Robert Mugabe's honorary degree.[32][33]

In April 2009, Arizona State University's President Michael M. Crow refused to give an honorary degree to US President Barack Obama for his perceived lack of adequate qualifying achievements thus far.[34] Also, controversy[35] was ignited about Notre Dame awarding Obama an honorary degree, as the institution is Roman Catholic and Obama holds pro-choice views on abortion and supports embryonic stem cell research.[36]

In May 2009, Saint Joseph's University gave an honorary degree to Chris Matthews, host of Hardball. Since Saint Joseph's is a Catholic, Jesuit University, this has sparked controversy with the pro-life movement, as Matthews is notably pro-choice.

See also


  1. ^ Although the spelling honorary is correct in all instances, the term for such an award is spelled honor in American English and honour in British English; see spelling differences.
  2. ^ a b c Buxton, L. H. Dudley and Gibson, Strickland, Oxford University Ceremonies, Oxford University Press (1935)
  3. ^ http://www.brookes.ac.uk/uniregulations/current/acadregulations/specific/b3procedure_for_award_of_honorary_degrees.pdf
  4. ^ Honorary degree recipients on the Special Collections Research Center Wiki
  5. ^ "Archbishop honoured". Anglican Journal. 1 September 2001. http://www.anglicanjournal.com/world/anglican-communion/017/article/archbishop-honoured/. Retrieved 2008-10-31. [dead link]
  6. ^ [1][dead link]
  7. ^ Maya Angelou – The Official Website
  8. ^ http://www.google.ex.ac.uk/search?q=dr+floella&site=default_collection&client=default_frontend&proxystylesheet=default_frontend&output=xml_no_dtd
  9. ^ England (2010-08-22). "Alumni of Orton Longueville Grammar School". En.wikipedia.org. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orton_Longueville_School#Orton_Longueville_Grammar_School. Retrieved 2010-09-05. 
  10. ^ "University announces honorary degrees to celebrate 550th anniversary". Gla.ac.uk. 2001-02-01. http://www.gla.ac.uk/news/archive/2001/february/headline_29920_en.html. Retrieved 2010-09-05. 
  11. ^ Department of the Official Report (Hansard), House of Commons, Westminster. "House of Commons Hansard Ministerial Statements for 05 Dec 2007 (pt 0002)". Publications.parliament.uk. http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200708/cmhansrd/cm071205/wmstext/71205m0002.htm. Retrieved 2010-09-05. 
  12. ^ 1974, Nov. "Playboy Interview: Hunter Thompson", Playboy.
  13. ^ Tanzania's president touts country's progress at St. Thomas appearance
  14. ^ Post Store (2001-05-22). "Yale Boycott". Washingtonpost.com. http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn?pagename=article&node=digest&contentId=A57583-2001May21. Retrieved 2010-09-05. 
  15. ^ "UMass faculty, students boo Card". The Boston Globe. May 26, 2007. http://www.boston.com/news/local/articles/2007/05/26/umass_faculty_students_boo_card/. 
  16. ^ BBC News "On this day archive" 29 January 1985 Thatcher snubbed by Oxford dons, BBC News. Retrieved April 9, 2007.
  17. ^ http://www.uwoprotest.com/
  18. ^ "Morgentaler signatures". Cbc.ca. 2005-06-16. http://www.cbc.ca/canada/story/2005/06/16/morgentaler050616.html. Retrieved 2010-09-05. 
  19. ^ JMDL Library: A doctor's advice: Montreal Gazette, October 28, 2004[dead link]
  20. ^ "Southampton College News: Kermit's Commencement Address at Southampton College". Southampton.liu.edu. http://www.southampton.liu.edu/news/commence/1996/kermit.htm. Retrieved 2010-09-05. 
  21. ^ Southampton College, [2], Kermit the Frog named 1996 Commencement Speaker at Southampton College. Retrieved June 10, 2008.
  22. ^ June 8, 2001 (2001-06-08). "No honorary degrees is an MIT tradition going back to ... Thomas Jefferson – MIT News Office". Web.mit.edu. http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2001/commdegrees.html. Retrieved 2010-09-05. 
  23. ^ Dear Uncle Ezra, Cornell University. "Dear Uncle Ezra – Questions for Thursday, May 15, 2003 – Cornell University". Ezra.cornell.edu. http://ezra.cornell.edu/posting.php?timestamp=1052974800#question19. Retrieved 2010-09-05. 
  24. ^ "Stanford Bulletin: Conferral of Degrees". Registrar.stanford.edu. http://registrar.stanford.edu/bulletin/4913.htm. Retrieved 2010-09-05. 
  25. ^ "Stanford Bulletin 2008/2009: Conferral of Degrees". Stanford.edu. http://www.stanford.edu/dept/registrar/bulletin0809/4913.htm. Retrieved 2010-09-05. 
  26. ^ "The Rice Thresher Online | NEWS | Cosby to speak at '02 graduation". Rice.edu. 2002-05-11. http://www.rice.edu/projects/thresher/issues/88/01.03.30/current/news/story0.html. Retrieved 2010-09-05. 
  27. ^ "University Regulations: Academic Regulations: Graduate Record 2005–2006". Virginia.edu. http://www.virginia.edu/registrar/records/05-06gradrec/chapter4/chapter4-1.htm#honorary. Retrieved 2010-09-05. 
  28. ^ http://www.stanfordalumni.org/volunteer/assoc/awards/umwa.html
  29. ^ "UCLA Policy 140: Awarding of the UCLA Medal". Adminpolicies.ucla.edu. http://www.adminpolicies.ucla.edu/app/Default.aspx?&id=140. Retrieved 2010-09-05. 
  30. ^ Wheen, Francis (2006). How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World. HarperCollins. p. 77. ISBN 0007140975. 
  31. ^ MacLeod, Murdo (2007-01-14). "Degree of anger at roll of dishonour". The Scotsman. http://news.scotsman.com/scotland.cfm?id=69612007. 
  32. ^ Vaznis, James (April 6, 2007). "UMass students aim to revoke honorary degree for Mugabe". The Boston Globe. http://www.boston.com/news/education/higher/articles/2007/04/06/umass_students_aim_to_revoke_honorary_degree_for_mugabe/. 
  33. ^ Contact:Robert P. Connolly617-287-7073 (2008-06-12). "UMass Mugabe". Umass.edu. http://www.umass.edu/newsoffice/newsreleases/articles/76038.php. Retrieved 2010-09-05. 
  34. ^ "Obama turns controversy into jokes, lesson at commencement". CNN. May 14, 2009. http://www.cnn.com/2009/POLITICS/05/13/obama.commencement/. Retrieved 2009-05-16. 
  35. ^ controversy, How the Gold Dome Tarnished, TFP Student Action, 05-21-09.
  36. ^ Storin, Matthew V. (May 17, 2009). "Church and state; Obama and Notre Dame". The Boston Globe. http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/editorial_opinion/oped/articles/2009/05/17/church_and_state_obama_and_notre_dame/. Retrieved 2009-05-17. 

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