Scrutinise honorary doctorates

The awarding of PhDs to those who haven’t earned it for merit or respectable reasons, should not be encouraged.

HONOURING a “distinguished” person with an honorary doctorate degree is always a contentious issue.

Each time a university’s convocation approaches, what comes to the minds of especially academics is about the person who is to receive the honorary doctorate. They often wonder if the recipient was truly rewarded for his academic and social contributions or otherwise.

The pride at getting an honorary doctorate is such that a recipient is willing to travel a great distance at his own expense, even if means travelling overseas to attend the conferment.

If cost is the factor preventing the honoured one from attending the event, the university may bear the expense of the flight and lodging as the recipient’s presence and acceptance of the honorary doctorate adds prestige to the occasion and the institution.

On convocation day, the recipient is welcomed with pride by the university’s top academics and officials. Banners and buntings are also displayed.

The recipient’s biodata is prepared to be read to an august gathering of academics, corporate figures, government officials, representatives from other universities, invited guests and graduates.

Those present to witness the occasion are in awe at the recipient’s achievements based on the biodata read to justify the reasons on why he should get the honorary doctorate.

The university on its part, recognises the recipient’s extraordinary achievements that have made a difference to society. The recipient’s work, contributions and efforts must measure up to that of a prestigious doctorate.

Some recipients may be awarded honorary doctorates from different universities because none of the institutions want to be left out in honouring these great individuals for their achievements.

These recipients will obviously have many certificates to hang on their walls both at their homes and offices, or to keep forever in their cabinets as they have lost count of the number of honorary doctorates they’ve received.

If etiquette allows, they would have no qualms about fixing their awards with a number attached to their PhD, denoting the number of honorary doctorates.

For example PhD (3), indicates that they have three honorary doctorates.

An important procedure in the award of an honorary PhD is the acceptance speech by the recipient.

Though many may regard it as a formality, a high standard acceptance speech is expected and has to be delivered by the recipient to justify the award.

If not, both the recipient and the honorary degree bestowed have no intellectual merit.

So, to the audience, the award clearly diminishes the credibility of the recipient and the university. Worse, the value of all degrees awarded from that institution will be questioned.

Though upon conferment a recipient may not use the prefix “Dr” to his name as he pleases; the university that awards him has to address him as it would to a normal PhD holder.

If the university invites him to lecture with an ex-gratia payment, it has to be at least on par with that of a normal PhD holder. All universities now have marketing departments and their objectives are to promote their respective institutions.

If to the public, a recipient of an honorary PhD hardly deserves such recognition, the perception is the award was given mainly to glorify and publicise the university.

Financial gains

In cases where a recipient is highly regarded in the commercial world, the honorary award is presented mainly for the university’s financial benefit. The honorary doctorate is thus like a dangling carrot.

It is imperative therefore that the university explains to the public the practical contributions of the recipient.

This is especially when the recipient’s achievements are found to be false later.

To revoke the award is embarrassing to both the university and the recipient.

The way out is for the university and the recipient to be silent, and hopefully the episode dies off and is forgotten.

There must be thousands of unsung heroes and heroines in dozens of unknown workplaces who would make better role models than the inividuals some universities choose to honour.

These unsung heroes and heroines however, have no “commercial value” that a university is looking for to enhance or upgrade its image.

There are cases of single and unemployed mothers who have slogged to make ends meet. Yet with the many difficulties they have, these women raise children who shine and become successful professionals.

Such women and their struggles are stories that need media attention, but are they splashed across newspapers and the social media? Some do make the headlines, but are soon forgotten.

What about the philanthropists? They quietly donate a bulk of their wealth to improve the lives of those who need their help. They never ask to be recognised publicly.

Many with hard-earned degrees and doctorates have never understood why universities give free handout degrees to those who have not contributed much academically or socially, apart from being successful businessmen and earning millions.

These degree holders are in debt for the amount spent to finance their studies. I strongly feel that it sends a wrong message to young people – that in order to get a free PhD, all one needs is to be rich or famous, or both.

But this is not what real life is all about.

At a time when many universities have lost their reputations, isn’t it time for such institutions to think about upgrading their academic standards first?

This is the credible thing to do, not enhancing their image through honorary PhDs. The awarding of such doctorates should be scrutinised.

If the university wants funding, they should ask from their alumni, many of whom are successful in their respective fields.

After all, should that not be the right thing for any graduate to do – to contribute and give back to their alma mater?

Many people who are associated with a university resent an honorary doctorate awarded to an outsider, more so if that recipient happens to be VIP, celebrity or tycoon clamouring for “academic honour”.

This is not the way to seek respect and dignity. To me it seems like giving “honours” for cash.

The writer is a retired academic from the Faculty of Business Management, Universiti Teknologi Mara, Shah Alam, Selangor. Email him at

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