Does an Honorary Degree Relate to Free Speech? Not Much.
By William Boardman -- Reader Supported News
POMP AND CIRCUMSTANCIAL EVIDENCE by [zimbio.com]
Rutgers University Honorary Degree Nomination Process
One of the most prestigious honors any university can bestow is an honorary degree, a degree which is conferred honoris causa, that is, for the sake of honor. This degree recognizes an individual's exceptional achievement or distinction in a field or activity consonant with the mission of the university. Through this major public action, the university is able to acknowledge worthy individuals of national and international acclaim whose accomplishments support the ideals of the university and serve as an example for our students, alumni, and society. Nominations may be made by the public or any member of the university community.
Honorary degrees purport to be about values above all
The honorary degree program at Rutgers seems little different in principle from honorary degree programs elsewhere. It serves as a way for the institution to confer honor on people whose accomplishments "evidence in his or her life a commitment of service to humankind" (as Rutgers puts it).
There were times, when the faculty of an academic institution was the conferring body for an honorary degree, and there were times when the faculty ran their colleges, when education was in the hands of teachers. In some places,
that may still be true, to a greater or lesser extent. That was true for awhile at Rutgers and reflected a certain level of free speech. Today, while Rutgers nominations for honorary degrees may be made by anyone, the list of finalists is determined solely by the Rutgers president; his list is then vetted by a subcommittee of the board and then the full board votes on that list, which is pretty assuredly politically correct from the institutional perspective of a small number of people who are not accountable for their choices.
Historically, the academic power struggle between the faculty and those who would rather run the institution has mostly led to control by non-faculty, and often non-teachers. The destruction of the once great University of California by the forces of commerce and authoritarian politics (led for awhile by Ronald Reagan) is a sad illustration of how the democratic ethos (educate everyone to their capacity, for free) has given way to exploitation (turning students into a profit center that has the serendipitous benefit of feeding inequality).
The honorary degree has never been what it's supposed to seem
The earliest honorary degree of the sort Rutgers awards today was apparently bestowed in 1478 or 1479 by Oxford University. Like so many contemporary honorary degrees, it, too, was a tug of the forelock to the power elite, at that time the court of Edward IV:
Lionel Woodville," Dean of Exeter and the brother-in-law of Edward IV, appears to have already held the degree of Bachelor of Canon Law; the University offered to confer the degree of Doctor of Canon Law on him without the usual academic exercises. It was thus an offer to dispense with the usual requirements, but was apparently unsolicited and clearly an attempt to honour and obtain the favour of a man with great influence. Woodville was shortly afterwards elected Chancellor of the University, a post he held until the death of Edward IV in 1483.
The best part of this account is that the earliest honorary degree was as dodgy as so many are today. Woodville had presumably earned his bachelor's degree. He received his doctorate only through a waiver of academic integrity all around. Even better is the notion that no one asked for it -- Oxford was happy for the opportunity to corrupt itself.
More than 500 years later, the honorary degree is still used as much for institutional advantage as for the recipient's good works, if any. Conflating anything to do with awarding honorary degrees with some exercise of free speech is at best delusional, at worst deceitful (obscuring the implicit quid pro quo so often inherent in such transactions. (Free speech arguments might apply to a commencement speaker who was not receiving an honorary degree, but even there the case is more likely to be absurd, since commencement speakers typically don't need a commencement to have their voices heard, unlike most in their audience.)
To argue, as do defenders of the conventional wisdom of our country in our time, that an honorary degree has any inherent relationship to free speech is to argue an illusion. It's not as though anyone has a right to an honorary degree from anyone. Certainly many if not most honorary degrees are awarded for genuine personal merit. But too many are too obviously also and perhaps only awarded for reasons of celebrity, fundraising, branding (of the institution), publicity, marketing, and so on, without regard or serious concern for any actual merit of the recipient.