Friday, May 16, 2008

The Marketplace of Degrees

Scott Jaschik has a long and thoughtful piece over at Inside Higher Ed in light of St. Louis' Washington University decision to award anti-feminist Phyllis Schlafly with an honorary doctorate. What, Jaschik wonders, is the point of honorary degrees? In the case of Schlafly, the university is endorsing a free exchange of ideas, officials claimed. But, as Jaschik pointed out,
Most of those protesting the Schlafly degree say that they would not object to her giving a lecture on the campus. Some might picket outside, but they would never challenge the right of a controversial figure to express her ideas, they say. An honorary doctorate is different from a lecture, they argue, because it is an honor, because it takes place at graduation, and because a doctorate — as the highest degree a university can award — conveys a sense of institutional endorsement.
If WU is merely endorsing the Schlafly's right to express ideas rather than the ideas themselves then what's the point of the award. Universities already endorse the free exchange of ideas in the very tenants of the institution of education. By citing this as a reason, university officials are implying Schlafly is doing something brave and new by putting forth unpopular ideas -- but the ideas she purports are merely reinforcement of old stereotypes and a resistance to real science and education.

Furthermore, Jaschik notes that other universities have dealt better with this idea of doling out honorary degrees. The University of Chicago, for instance, only awards honorary degrees to scholars that are nominated by the school's professors. Cornell University avoids the subject altogether and just doesn't award honorary degrees. The question that Jaschik poses is a good one. With so many universities giving out honorary degrees, they can't all be to thoughtful scholars or those that make significant social change. In many cases, it seems that honorary degrees are nothing more than a publicity stunt or means of getting a famous person at a graduation ceremony. When so many people labor long and hard for years to earn real doctorates, the practice of awarding honorary ones seems silly and unfair. I'd be happy to see this convention junked altogether.

Cross posted.

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