Honorary degree

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The honoris causa doctorate received by Jimmy Wales from the University of Maastricht (2015) Jimmy Wales receives honorary doctorate from Maastricht University (5).JPG
The honoris causa doctorate received by Jimmy Wales from the University of Maastricht (2015)

An honorary degree [note 1] is an academic degree for which a university (or other degree-awarding institution) has waived all of the usual requirements. It is also known by the Latin phrases honoris causa ("for the sake of the honour") or ad honorem ("to the honour"). 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 [1] or no previous postsecondary education. An example of identifying a recipient of this award is as follows: Doctorate in Business Administration (Hon. Causa).


The degree is often conferred as a way of honouring a distinguished visitor's contributions to a specific field or to society in general. [2]

It is sometimes recommended that such degrees be listed in one's curriculum vitae (CV) as an award, and not in the education section. [3] With regard to the use of this honorific, the policies of institutions of higher education generally ask that recipients "refrain from adopting the misleading title" [4] and that a recipient of an honorary doctorate should restrict the use of the title "Dr" before their name to any engagement with the institution of higher education in question and not within the broader community. [5] Theodore Hesburgh held the record for most honorary degrees, having been awarded 150 during his lifetime. [6]

Historical origins

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 the award of a degree. The earliest honorary degree on record was awarded to Lionel Woodville in the late 1470s by the University of Oxford. [7] He later became Bishop of Salisbury. [8]

In the late 16th century, the granting of honorary degrees became quite common, especially on the occasion of royal visits to Oxford or Cambridge. [7] 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). [7]

There were also some special cases: for example the critic John Ruskin suffered some kind of physical or mental breakdown in 1840 and dropped out of the University of Oxford. He returned to Oxford in 1842, and sat a single exam, and was awarded an honorary fourth-class degree. [9]

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 nominations usually go through several committees before receiving approval. Nominees 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. [10]

The term honorary degree is a slight misnomer: honoris causa degrees are not considered of the same standing as substantive degrees earned by the standard academic processes of courses and original research, except perhaps where the recipient has demonstrated an appropriate level of academic scholarship that would ordinarily qualify him or her for the award of a substantive degree. [11] Recipients of honorary degrees typically wear the same academic dress as recipients of substantive degrees, although there are a few exceptions: honorary graduates 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 officii degree is sometimes considered honorary, although these are only conferred on an individual who has already achieved a comparable qualification at another university or attained an office requiring the appropriate level of scholarship. Under certain circumstances, a degree may be conferred on an individual for both the nature of the office they hold and the completion of a dissertation. The "dissertation et jure dignitatis" is considered to be a full academic degree. See below.

Although higher doctorates such as Doctor of Science, Doctor of Letters, etc. are often awarded honoris causa, in many countries (notably England and Scotland, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand) it is formally possible to earn such a degree as a substantive one. [12] 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. [13]

Between the two extremes of honoring celebrities and formally assessing a portfolio of research, some universities use honorary degrees to recognize achievements of intellectual rigor. Some institutes of higher education do not confer honorary degrees as a matter of policy—see below. Some learned societies award honorary fellowships in the same way as honorary degrees are awarded by universities, for similar reasons.

Practical use

Letter from Ezra Stiles to George Washington announcing the awarding of an honorary degree to Washington by the president and fellows of Yale College (1781). Ezra Stiles George Washington Honorary Degree.jpg
Letter from Ezra Stiles to George Washington announcing the awarding of an honorary degree to Washington by the president and fellows of Yale College (1781).

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.'" [14] 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.

The recipient of an honorary degree may add the degree title postnominally, but it should[ citation needed ] always be made clear that the degree is honorary by adding "honorary" or "honoris causa" or "h.c." in parentheses 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 postnominal titles for honorary degrees. This is in part due to the confusion that honorary degrees have caused. For example, an honorary doctorate from the Auckland University of Technology takes the special title HonD since it is now common in certain countries to use certain degrees, such as LLD or HonD, as purely honorary. Some universities, including the Open University, grant Doctor of the University (DUniv) degrees to selected nominees, while awarding PhD or EdD degrees to those who have fulfilled the academic requirements.

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

Customary degrees (ad eundem or jure officii degrees)

Some universities and colleges have the custom of awarding a master's degree to every scholar appointed as a full professor, who had never earned a degree there. At the universities of Oxford, Dublin and Cambridge, many senior staff are granted the degree of Master of Arts after three years of service, [15] [16] and at Amherst College all tenured professors are awarded a Master of Arts degree at an 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). Schools such as Brown University, the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard University also award tenured faculty, who do not have a degree from their respective schools, the AM ad eundem .

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

Similarly, a jure dignitatis degree is awarded to someone who has demonstrated 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 his consecration, or a judge created LLD (Legum Doctor) or DCL (Doctor of Civil Law) upon his or her appointment to the judicial bench. These, also, are properly considered substantive rather than honorary degrees.

Institutions not awarding honorary degrees

Some US universities such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), [17] Cornell University, [18] Stanford University, [19] [20] and Rice University, [21] do not award honorary degrees as a matter of policy. The University of Virginia (founded in 1819) was probably the first US university to explicitly have a policy of not awarding honorary degrees at the behest of its founder, Thomas Jefferson. [17] [22] In 1845, William Barton Rogers, then chairman of the faculty, vigorously defended this policy; in 1861, he founded MIT in Boston and continued this practice. [17] [23] The University of Virginia does annually award Thomas Jefferson Medals in Architecture and in Law, as the highest honors accorded by that institution. [22] [24]

The Stanford Alumni Association occasionally awards the Degree of Uncommon Man/Woman to individuals who have given "rare and exceptional service" to the university. [25] Though UCLA has imposed a moratorium on awarding honorary degrees, it honors notable people with the UCLA Medal instead. [26] St. John's College has not granted honorary degrees since 1936, but its alumni association occasionally offers honorary membership to retiring faculty, staff, and other close associates of the college. [27]


Elena Ceausescu becoming Doctor Honoris Causa of the University of Manila, Philippines, in 1975 1975 Elena Ceausescu Honoris Causa Manilla.jpg
Elena Ceauşescu becoming Doctor Honoris Causa of the University of Manila, Philippines, in 1975

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. It can be similarly misleading when respected individuals are referred to as "Professor", especially in a university or government context. [28]

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. [29] This award had previously been given to all prime ministers who had been educated at Oxford.

The Philosophy Faculty at Cambridge courted controversy among the academic community in March 1992, when three of its members posed a temporary veto against the awarding of an honorary doctorate to Jacques Derrida; [30] they and other non-Cambridge proponents of analytic philosophy protested against 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 1996, Southampton College at Long Island University (now a campus of Stony Brook University) 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. [31] 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 Park Service, the Better World Society, and others." [32]

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. [33] Andrew Card, who served as Bush's Chief of Staff from 2001 to 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. [34]

Few people object when an honorary degree is awarded in a field for which the honorand is noted. 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. [35]

In 2005 at the University of Western Ontario, 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 asking the UWO to reverse its decision to honor Morgentaler. [36] 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). [37]

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. [38] 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 12 June 2008 the trustees unanimously rescinded Robert Mugabe's honorary degree. [39] [40] Michigan State University has also rescinded its honorary degree. [41]

In April 2009, Arizona State University's president, Michael M. Crow, refused to give an honorary degree to US President Barack Obama for his lack of adequate qualifying achievements thus far. [42] Also, controversy [43] 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. [44]

In February 2012, Rosmah Mansor, the wife of the Prime Minister of Malaysia, Najib Razak was controversially awarded an honorary doctorate by the Curtin University for "services to childhood education". [45] The university honored Rosmah for founding and driving the Permata early childhood centres in Malaysia although some alumni and students contended that the government-funded centres are "an abuse of taxpayers' money". [46]

Over 50 honorary degrees awarded to Bill Cosby have been rescinded due to allegations and lawsuits of sexual assault.[ citation needed ]

Use of title associated with honorary doctorates

By convention, recipients of honorary doctorates do not use the title "Dr" in general correspondence, although in formal correspondence from the university issuing the honorary degree it is normal to address the recipient by the title, at least in the United States. [47] [48] However, this social convention is not always scrupulously observed. [28] Notable people who have used the honorary prefix include:

See also

Explanatory notes

  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.

Related Research Articles

Doctor (title) Academic title for a holder of a doctoral degree

Doctor is an academic title that originates from the Latin word of the same spelling and meaning. The word is originally an agentive noun of the Latin verb docēre[dɔˈkeːrɛ] 'to teach'. It has been used as an academic title in Europe since the 13th century, when the first doctorates were awarded at the University of Bologna and the University of Paris.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">University of Dublin</span> University in Dublin, Ireland, founded 1592

The University of Dublin, corporately designated the Chancellor, Doctors and Masters of the University of Dublin, is a university located in Dublin, Ireland. It is the degree-awarding body for Trinity College Dublin. It was founded in 1592 when Queen Elizabeth I issued a charter for Trinity College as "the mother of a university", thereby making it Ireland's oldest operating university. It was modelled after the collegiate universities of Oxford and of Cambridge, but unlike these other ancient universities, only one college was established; as such, the designations "Trinity College" and "University of Dublin" are usually synonymous for practical purposes.

An academic degree is a qualification awarded to students upon successful completion of a course of study in higher education, usually at a college or university. These institutions commonly offer degrees at various levels, usually including undergraduate degrees, master's, and doctorates, often alongside other academic certificates and professional degrees. The most common undergraduate degree is the bachelor's degree, although in some countries there are lower level higher education qualifications that are also titled degrees.

Doctorate Academic or professional degree

A doctorate or doctor's degree or doctoral degree is an academic degree awarded by universities and some other educational institutions, derived from the ancient formalism licentia docendi. In most countries, a research degree qualifies the holder to teach at university level in the degree's field or work in a specific profession. There are a number of doctoral degrees; the most common is the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), awarded in many different fields, ranging from the humanities to scientific disciplines.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Shirley M. Tilghman</span> Canadian molecular biologist and president emerita of Princeton University

Shirley Marie Tilghman, is a Canadian scholar in molecular biology and an academic administrator. She is now a professor of molecular biology and public policy and president emerita of Princeton University. In 2002, Discover magazine recognized her as one of the 50 most important women in science.

Doctor of Science, usually abbreviated Sc.D., D.Sc., S.D., or D.S., is an academic research degree awarded in a number of countries throughout the world. In some countries, "Doctor of Science" is the degree used for the standard doctorate in the sciences; elsewhere the Sc.D. is a "higher doctorate" awarded in recognition of a substantial and sustained contribution to scientific knowledge beyond that required for a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD).

A law degree is an academic degree conferred for studies in law. Such degrees are generally preparation for legal careers. But while their curricula may be reviewed by legal authority, they do not confer a license themselves. A legal license is granted by examination, and exercised locally. The law degree can have local, international, and world-wide aspects, such as in England and Wales, where the Legal Practice Course or passing Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) is required to become a solicitor or the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) to become a barrister.

Doctor of Divinity Holder of an advanced academic degree in divinity

A Doctor of Divinity is the holder of an advanced academic degree in divinity.

An ad eundem degree is an academic degree awarded by one university or college to an alumnus of another, in a process often known as incorporation. The recipient of the ad eundem degree is often a faculty member at the institution which awards the degree, e.g. at the University of Cambridge, where incorporation is expressly limited to a person who "has been admitted to a University office or a Headship or a Fellowship of a College, or holds a post in the University Press ... or is a Head-elect or designate of a College".

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Legum Doctor (LL.D.) or, in English, Doctor of Laws, is a doctorate-level academic degree in law or an honorary degree, depending on the jurisdiction. The double “L” in the abbreviation refers to the early practice in the University of Cambridge to teach both canon law and civil law, with the double “L” itself indicating the plural, although Cambridge now gives the degree the name Doctor of Law in English. This contrasts with the practice of the University of Oxford, where the degree that survived from the Middle Ages is the DCL or Doctor of Civil Law (only).

A Lambeth degree is an academic degree conferred by the Archbishop of Canterbury under the authority of the Ecclesiastical Licences Act 1533 (Eng) as successor of the papal legate in England. The degrees conferred most commonly are DD, DCL, DLitt, DMus, DM, BD and MA. The relatively modern degree of MLitt has been conferred in recent years, and the MPhil and PhD are now available. The degrees awarded are dependent on which of the two ancient universities, the Oxford or the Cambridge, the archbishop chooses as his model. This is also related to the nature of the academic dress used.

Doctor of Letters is a terminal degree in the humanities that, depending on the country, is a higher doctorate after the Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) degree or equivalent to a higher doctorate, such as the Doctor of Science. It is awarded in many countries by universities and learned bodies in recognition of superior accomplishment in the humanities, original contributions to the creative or cultural arts, or scholarship and other merits. It may be conferred as an earned degree upon the completion of a regular doctoral course of study, usually including the development and defense of an original dissertation, or may be conferred as an earned higher doctorate after the submission and academic evaluation of a portfolio of sustained scholarship, publications, research, or other scientific work of the highest caliber.

The degree of Doctor of Humane Letters is an honorary degree awarded to those who have distinguished themselves through humanitarian and philanthropic contributions to society. The criteria for awarding the degree differ from institution to institution; however, it is typically given to persons outside the university invited to be keynote speakers at the most important university events, or to faculty members or alumni of the institution who have, in the eyes of the institution or the wider world, distinguished themselves in some way. This flexibility has resulted in universities awarding unique variants of the degree. For example, in 1996 Southampton College awarded Kermit the Frog an honorary "doctorate of Amphibious Letters" in recognition for his contribution to children's education.

Academic regalia of Harvard University

As the oldest college in the United States, Harvard University has a long tradition of academic dress. Harvard gown facings bear crow's-feet emblems near the yoke, a symbol unique to Harvard, made from flat braid in colours distinctive of the wearer's qualification or degree. Crow's-feet are double for earned degrees, and triple for honorary degrees.

Doctor of Fine Arts (D.F.A.) is a doctoral degree in fine arts, may be given as an honorary degree or an earned professional degree.

Doctor of Philosophy Postgraduate academic degree awarded by universities in many countries

A Doctor of Philosophy is the most common degree at the highest academic level awarded following a course of study. PhDs are awarded for programs across the whole breadth of academic fields. Because it is an earned research degree, those studying for a PhD are required to produce original research that expands the boundaries of knowledge, normally in the form of a dissertation, and defend their work before a panel of other experts in the field. The completion of a PhD is often a requirement for employment as a university professor, researcher, or scientist in many fields. Individuals who have earned a Doctor of Philosophy degree may, in many jurisdictions, use the title Doctor with their name, although the proper etiquette associated with this usage may also be subject to the professional ethics of their own scholarly field, culture, or society. Those who teach at universities or work in academic, educational, or research fields are usually addressed by this title "professionally and socially in a salutation or conversation." Alternatively, holders may use post-nominal letters such as "Ph.D.", "PhD", or "DPhil". It is, however, considered incorrect to use both the title and post-nominals at the same time.

Academic dress in the United States

Academic regalia in the United States has a history going back to the colonial colleges era. It has been most influenced by the academic dress traditions of Europe. There is an Inter-Collegiate Code that sets out a detailed uniform scheme of academic regalia that is voluntarily followed by many, though not all institutions entirely adhere to it.

Doctor of Law Doctoral degree in law

Doctor of Law or Doctor of Laws is a degree in law. The application of the term varies from country to country and includes degrees such as the Doctor of Juridical Science, Juris Doctor (J.D.), Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.), and Legum Doctor (LL.D.).


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