Tell me about honorary degrees

The mention of honorary degrees in this thread made me wonder–what proportion of honorary degrees are genuinely inappropriate? Honorary degrees get mocked for rewarding celebrity status or financial donations, rather than genuine accomplishments, but most honorary degrees seem at least moderately defensible based on field: performers get honorary doctorates in music or art, authors an journalists get honorary doctorates in “letters,” and politicians get honorary doctorates in law.

Those are all fields in which the recipient has (presumably) made a genuine contribution, but I’m sure there are plenty of exceptions. How common is it for someone to get an honorary degree for which they are clearly unqualified? Do different schools have different standards for awarding honorary degrees? And finally, do you have an honorary degree? If so, what was it for, and can I call you Doctor?

Honorary degrees are usually granted at graduation to various people who the college decides to honor (the commencement speaker always gets one). It’s hard to say any of them are inappropriate: they usually are given in a discipline that has something to do with the honoree’s work. They also aren’t usually considered as credentials in academia (though if the honoree has an earned degree, then that does).

Sometimes, a winner does something (like get arrested) and the college will rescind the degree. Other times, they’ll create a degree to match the person’s background (many years ago, some college gave an honorary degree to a guy who ran a hot dog stand nearby; it was a “Doctor of hotdogology” or something similar).

It’s primarily just an award and had no academic meaning.

Universities sometimes award honorary doctorates to folks who gave money to the school. I may have this wrong, but I think when David Letterman set up a scholarship program at Ball State University, he made them promise not to give him any honorary degrees.

Can you call me doctor? If it would make you happy, you can. I am an honorary Doctor of Divinity, so proclaimed by the Universal Life Church. Does it mean I studied long into the night, with dedication to the Church? No. I gave them twenty bucks, and they gave me the degree. I am RevNott, DocNott, and maybe JudgeNott. I performed a marriage last February, and that has been my only official act as a minister in over 30 years, if you don’t count blessing sneezers.

Sorry, AskNott, only holders of real phony degrees get that courtesy from me in this thread. Get back to me when the ULC opens a university.

That’s no skin off my nose, Alan Smithee. What about holders of phony real degrees?:wink:

IMHO–all of them.

I think it cheapens the degree. What’s worse is that they are presented at commencement ceremonies. This leads to graduate students, finally being awarded their Ph.D. degrees after years of schooling, research, and a dissertation, watching some clown just there for the day receiving the “honorary” equivalent. If it’s just a recognition or an award for service, call it that! Don’t call it a degree, though, honorary or not.

I’ve always proud of the fact that my alma mater, Rice University, does not and has never granted honorary degrees. This has led to problems with some commencement speakers. For instance, this article notes that:

My favorite example of this, is Kermit the Frog holds an honorary Doctorate of Amphibious Letters from Southampton College. Since, obviously, they couldn’t give him the more usual “Doctorate of Humane Letters”.

Ok, so some honorary degrees are just obvious jokes. But are all of them? Sure, if you think the idea of giving a “degree” as an award is just silly, but the same press release announcing Dr. the Frog’s degree has this:

That is an honorary degree given to someone with obvious academic credentials in recognition of significant accomplishments. It’s still just an award, not a real academic credential, but it isn’t a joke either.

My understanding is that honorary degrees arose out of the practice of Oxbridge schools granting “higher doctorates” based on the submission of a portfolio of work. (See here.) Don’t some schools still regard honorary degrees as the recognition of specific accomplishments, or are they all regarded as no more meaningful than Kermit’s D.Amph.Litt.?

I didn’t find much about him thru Google, He was awarded his from John Hopkins.

The most practical reason that I can think of for honorary degrees is that they allow you to wear the gown etc, which means that you don’t stand out as a jerk at ceremonies.

Spanish colleges usually don’t have graduation ceremonies, so giving someone a honorary doctorate merits its own celebration (with snacks! Hey guys! FREE FOOD! <- them profs know how to make the student body attend, they do).

It’s pretty common to give a honorary degree to someone who already has a “real” degree in the field.

People who give money to a college and don’t want to do it anonimously get their name on a plaque on a wall… if that. A company wanted to get a real big plaque of their own with their logo for giving money to my college and were told that no, everybody gets the same size and format, sorry. Then we don’t give you the money. We’ll survive.
About 1/4 of the donations when I studied there were Anonymous; another 1/3 were corporate.

No, this wouldn’t have been a joke. But, in a case like this, it wasn’t as if getting an honorary degree from Southampton College (who? where?) added much to Merton’s existing undoubtable eminence in his field. It would have been uncontroversial and safe precisely because everybody already recognised him as a significant figure.

However, what gives this particular example a certain appropriateness is that it can be taken as a loose example of the Matthew Effect: “For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance.” The original - post-Biblical - article on the subject is here (a pdf).