Follow Us:

Why it is honourable to spurn honorary degrees

Of course, such honorary degrees are more like awards, and with such honorary degrees they can’t write “Dr” before their names. But still a University degree is a University degree, and one must work tirelessly for years to “earn” such a degree.

Atanu Biswas | Kolkata |

There was no Sachin Tendulkar in the list of people conferred a Doctor of Literature (honoris causa) in the 63rd convocation of the Jadavpur University held on 24 December. Yes, in September, cricketing legend Sachin Tendulkar had refused to accept an honorary D.Litt. from the Jadavpur University.

Of course, Tendulkar informed the University that he would not accept an honour of this stature from any university and had earlier turned down such an honour from the Oxford University as well. He did the same thing in 2011 also, when he declined an honorary doctorate from the Rajiv Gandhi University of Health Sciences in Bangalore, citing professional reasons. While Tendulkar’s decisions are consistent, it was certainly a matter of discomfort for the University. Universities should contact the person first to get his/her consent, and then announce it publicly. This is how many awards and honours are given worldwide.

We came to know further that with the information of Sachin not accepting a D.Litt. degree, it was decided to confer the degree on legendary boxer Mary Kom. Certainly, I felt a little discomfort at this news, at least in the way it was presented, and was a bit relieved when I did not find the six-time World Amateur Boxing champion in this year’s Jadavpur honorary awardees. Of course, Mary Kom supposedly cited personal reasons for her absence.

However, the broader question is much beyond conferring an honorary degree to Sachin or Mary Kom. I’m always a bit uncomfortable with universities jumping into the race of getting glorified by awarding such honorary degrees to stalwarts and legends outside academics. As a result, some cricketer or film star or an eminent person from some other area might have 20 or 50 such honorary doctorate degrees. Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, a native New Yorker, held the world record for the individual with most honorary degrees, which was more than 150. We all are accustomed to this culture, and often feel that it is natural. But why?

Of course, such honorary degrees are more like awards, and with such honorary degrees they can’t write “Dr” before their names. But still a University degree is a University degree, and one must work tirelessly for years to “earn” such a degree. And, eventually, a student who works hard and invests 4/5 years (or more) of his life in the library and laboratory gets the degree from the same dais along with a Bollywood star, and all the limelight will invariably be on that actor who is a public figure. This is a huge injustice, indeed.

There is no doubt that the cricketer or actor had achieved much more to his/her credit than an ordinary researcher, who has just earned a doctorate. But the player or actor would certainly get his/her due reward elsewhere, within their own world – in terms of Arjuna Award, Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award, Dadasaheb Phalke Award, Filmfare Award, Padma Awards, and even maybe through a Bharat Ratna.

What’s more, the adoration of millions pours over such public figures relentlessly. Then what is the need to confer them with an “extra” honorary University degree? I don’t find much substance in the process of conferring an honorary degree on an academician as well.

You always confer such awards on stalwarts; but they don’t need such “extra” recognition. If they need it, they are certainly not of that stature.

Benjamin Franklin, the great American statesman and scientist, didn’t get time to earn a Ph.D. degree although he got honorary doctorate degrees from Harvard, Yale and Oxford. This might be an argument in favour of conferring such degrees in some cases. However, I don’t see any problem if Franklin hadn’t got such a degree. Satyendra Nath Bose didn’t have a Ph.D., but even now people get the Nobel Prize for working on “Boson”.

Irishman George Bernard Shaw and HL Mencken, the Sage of Baltimore, were among the notable personalities who had never attended any college and rejected all offers of honorary degrees. When the University of Edinburgh offered Shaw a doctorate in law, Shaw wrote back with indignation: “To pick out the one academic department which my work has never touched and offer me a degree in that is an insult to me and to law, an undignified caper which makes light of learning and its institutes.”

Offering honorary degrees is a custom in the United States. In his 75-year-old book “Honorary Degrees: A Survey of Their Use and Abuse”, Stephen Edward Epler wrote that “except for military honours and occasional Congressional medals, the government of the United States grants few awards. Thus, the honorary degree is perhaps the most important honorific in the nation.”

However, some believe that a degree conferred honoris causa indicates that “the institution has not exuded influence or control” over the work that the recipient has done.

Roald Hoffmann, the 1981 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, who received more than 25 such honorary degrees, and declined some, has an interesting opinion. Hoffmann says that he is proud to accept the honour if there is a tie between him and the university before the event and would decline an honorary degree if the school in question is either a place where he has no friends, or he perceives it as one that is using him for publicity or get prestige for itself.

Opinions vary indeed. Cornell University “regarded as a proud distinction its refusal to make honorary doctors of those who could never earn a real doctorate.” (‘A History of Cornell’ by Morris Bishop, Cornell University Press, 1962).

It might be worthy to remember what another great cricketing legend Rahul Dravid did when he was nominated for an honorary doctorate degree by Bangalore University in early 2017. When Dravid denied it, he wrote (he) “would try to earn a Doctorate Degree by accomplishing some form of academic research in the field of sports rather than receiving an honorary degree.” Hats off to Dravid! Earlier also he had declined an honorary doctorate degree from Gulbarga University. In the case of the Jadavpur degree, Sachin Tendulkar also opined that since he hadn’t earned it, it would not be right for him to accept the DLit.

There were waves of approval for Rahul Dravid in social media and mainstream media as well for his decision to refuse an honorary doctorate from Bangalore University, which shows the way common people also look at the issue of conferring such honorary degrees to eminent persons other than academics.

Well, in Sachin’s case, as was reported in a newspaper, some students of Jadavpur were left dismayed as they lost the opportunity to take an autograph of the legend. I’ll be very happy if, in future, Rahul Dravid can find time to “earn” a University doctorate. Even if he doesn’t manage time for that, the “value” he or Sachin Tendulkar added to a University degree simply by declining them is immense. Let’s just hope that our Universities would value their own degrees that much

(The writer is Professor of Statistics, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata.)