KU to confer honorary degrees for first time in university’s history

Honor could also include opportunity to speak at graduation

After getting the go-ahead from the Kansas Board of Regents, Kansas University is beginning a process that would award honorary degrees for what’s believed to be the first time in the school’s history.

Any recipients would be honored as part of the university’s commencement ceremony, and could give speeches there, said Susan Kemper, a KU distinguished professor of psychology who is leading the committee to award the degrees.

“In some years, the chancellor might invite one of the honorary degree recipients to address the graduates,” Kemper said.

She said that could replace the chancellor’s traditional address to graduates in some years, or it could be in addition to it.

“That process is still being resolved,” she said.

Jack Martin, a KU spokesman, said exactly who gives speeches at commencement would be determined on a case-by-case basis. Some years, he said, KU may elect not to award any honorary degrees at all.

Many other universities and colleges, Kemper said, invite recipients of honorary degrees to give commencement speeches. They come from diverse backgrounds, including politicians, musicians and comedians.

At KU, though, think more along the lines of a distinguished politician than a rapper or a comedian, Kemper said.

The university will have the capability to award four honorary degrees: a doctor of laws, science, arts or letters.

“I don’t know why we never gave away honorary degrees,” Kemper said. “I’ve heard different accounts.”

The idea, Kemper said, is to find people who have fundamentally changed their field or the way we view the world.

Kemper is seeking nominations from the KU community. She said that, traditionally, most of the nominations come from faculty, but the committee will — at least initially — consider nominations from students and alumni as well. A nomination form is available online.

She said she hopes to have nominations by Aug. 15. The committee will review the applications and winnow the list to a smaller group for further consideration — perhaps a group of eight to 10 nominees, Kemper said.

From that group, the committee will recommend three to five candidates to the chancellor, who will forward her selections to the Kansas Board of Regents, who have the final say.

Those numbers have some wiggle room, Kemper said. There is no maximum or minimum number of degrees that could be awarded, and they could award more than one from each category, she said.

Though she said Kansas State University is hoping to honor people who have ties to the university or the state, KU isn’t constraining itself to those criteria.

“It’s not necessarily either way,” she said, adding that if extremely distinguished people have connections to the university or the state, they won’t be disqualified because of it. “They might (have those connections), but that’s not why they’re being recognized.”