Giving state universities in Kansas permission to award honorary degrees may seem innocent enough, but it’s not something the Kansas Board of Regents should rush into without due consideration.
Kansas State University President Kirk Schulz said gaining the ability to grant honorary degrees was one of his goals when he came to KSU last year. New Kansas University Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little also supports the idea. Schulz said he doesn’t know of any other state whose universities aren’t allowed to grant such degrees.
That’s probably true, but that doesn’t necessarily mean Kansas should go along with the crowd on this issue.
For one thing, it seems that honorary degrees are losing some of their prestige because they are being overused by universities that want to recognize major donors or attract celebrities to deliver a commencement address. As spelled out in the proposed Kansas policy, honorary doctorates would be reserved for people who are notable for their intellectual, scholarly or creative achievements or service to humanity. A university doctorate, earned or honorary, should be somehow connected to scholarly excellence, not awarded based on popularity or celebrity.
It’s been pointed out that KU already has a great award, the Distinguished Service Citation, to honor people who have made outstanding contributions to KU and/or society as a whole. It is a prestigious award that, at this point, seems far more notable than many of the honorary doctorates being handed out around the country.
An embarrassing example of this trend occurred last weekend at Wheaton College in Massachusetts. NBC newscaster Ann Curry received an honorary doctorate at the school, perhaps at least in part to entice her to deliver Wheaton’s commencement address.
In that address, she acknowledged three notable Wheaton graduates. Unfortunately, the three men she listed all were graduates of the Wheaton College in Illinois. She didn’t even know enough about Wheaton to wonder how those middle-aged or older men graduated from a school that was an all-women’s college until 1988.
Curry reportedly was “mortified” by the error. It may have been an honest mistake, but you have to admit it reflects a certain lack of “scholarship” in researching the speech.
The point is, the practice of granting honorary doctorates seems to have gotten a little out of hand. Kansas might be better off creating its own unique honor, not unlike KU’s Distinguished Service Citation. If university leaders and the Board of Regents decide to go ahead with honorary doctorates, they should take the time and care to write a policy that seeks to protects the prestige and integrity of the degrees granted at our state universities.