Does an Honorary Degree Relate to Free Speech? Not Much

One of the most prestigious honors any university can bestow is an honorary degree, a degree which is conferred honoris causa, that is, for the sake of honor. This degree recognizes an individual’s exceptional achievement or distinction in a field or activity consonant with the mission of the university. Through this major public action, the university is able to acknowledge worthy individuals of national and international acclaim whose accomplishments support the ideals of the university and serve as an example for our students, alumni, and society. Nominations may be made by the public or any member of the university community.

— Rutgers University Honorary Degree Nomination Process

Honorary degrees purport to be about values above all  

The honorary degree program at Rutgers seems little different in principle from honorary degree programs elsewhere. It serves as a way for the institution to confer honor on people whose accomplishments “evidence in his or her life a commitment of service to humankind” (as Rutgers puts it).

There were times, when the faculty of an academic institution was the conferring body for an honorary degree, and there were times when the faculty ran their colleges, when education was in the hands of teachers. In some places, that may still be true, to a greater or lesser extent. That was true for a while at Rutgers and reflected a certain level of free speech. Today, while Rutgers’ nominations for honorary degrees may be made by anyone, the list of finalists is determined solely by the Rutgers president; his list is then vetted by a subcommittee of the board and then the full board votes on that list, which is pretty assuredly politically correct from the institutional perspective of a small number of people who are not accountable for their choices.

Historically, the academic power struggle between the faculty and those who would rather run the institution has mostly led to control by non-faculty, and often non-teachers.  The destruction of the once great University of California by the forces of commerce and authoritarian politics (led for a while by Ronald Reagan) is a sad illustration of how the democratic ethos (educate everyone to their capacity, for free) has given way to exploitation (turning students into a profit center that has the serendipitous benefit of feeding inequality).

The honorary degree has never been what it’s supposed to seem

The earliest honorary degree of the sort Rutgers awards today was apparently bestowed in 1478 or 1479 by Oxford University. Like so many contemporary honorary degrees, it, too, was a tug of the forelock to the power elite, at that time the court of Edward IV:

Lionel Woodville,… Dean of Exeter and the brother-in-law of Edward IV, appears to have already held the degree of Bachelor of Canon Law; the University offered to confer the degree of Doctor of Canon Law on him without the usual academic exercises. It was thus an offer to dispense with the usual requirements, but was apparently unsolicited and clearly an attempt to honour and obtain the favour of a man with great influence. Woodville was shortly afterwards elected Chancellor of the University, a post he held until the death of Edward IV in 1483.

The best part of this account is that the earliest honorary degree was as dodgy as so many are today. Woodville had presumably earned his bachelor’s degree. He received his doctorate only through a waiver of academic integrity all around.  Even better is the notion that no one asked for it – Oxford was happy for the opportunity to corrupt itself.

More than 500 years later, the honorary degree is still used as much for institutional advantage as for the recipient’s good works, if any.  Conflating anything to do with awarding honorary degrees with some exercise of free speech is at best delusional, at worst deceitful (obscuring the implicit quid pro quo so often inherent in such transactions.  (Free speech arguments might apply to a commencement speaker who was not receiving an honorary degree, but even there the case is more likely to be absurd, since commencement speakers typically don’t need a commencement to have their voices heard, unlike most in their audience.)

To argue, as do defenders of the conventional wisdom of our country in our time, that an honorary degree has any inherent relationship to free speech is to argue an illusion. It’s not as though anyone has a right to an honorary degree from anyone. Certainly many, if not most, honorary degrees are awarded for genuine personal merit. But too many are too obviously also and perhaps only awarded for reasons of celebrity, fundraising, branding (of the institution), publicity, marketing, and so on, without regard or serious concern for any actual merit of the recipient.

Would anyone disagree that Condoleezza Rice is no Bill Bradley?

In 1999, Rutgers University awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Laws to the Honorable Bill Bradley – Rhodes Scholar, New York Knicks forward, U.S. Senator, among other achievements. His citation lists these titles as well as more substantive efforts such as working to create fairer taxation, family medical leave, and increased student aid as examples of his “generous, principled use of time and talent in the interest of others.” The citation concludes that: “Your work and your standards are exemplary to all.” Arguable as all things are, this is about as true as it gets.

In 2014, Rutgers decided to award the same degree – honorary Doctor of Laws – to Condoleezza Rice, and to pay her to speak at commencement. Her honorary degree citation is not available, but it would likely mention her academic achievements as well as positions as National Security Advisor and Secretary of State. Not too shabby. But what could it say about her work in the interest of others? Was Rutgers ready to argue that ignoring a warning about bin Laden, lying the country into war, or defending American torture were really ”generous, principled use of time and talent in the interest of others”? Could anyone, even the president of Rutgers, actually believe about Rice that her “work and standards are exemplary to all.”

We don’t know the back story of how Rice, a clear lawbreaker who has yet to face accountability, was somehow thought to deserve an honorary Doctor of Laws, for which the Rutgers standard is: “Distinguished service to state or to nation, to learning or to humankind, coupled with intellectual gifts and moral qualities that entitle the recipient to rank with persons of culture and high principle.” That’s a tough case to make. That’s the case that faculty and students challenged. That’s the case Rutgers administrators and eventually Rice herself chose not even to try to defend or explain.

For raising matters at the heart of the issue, the victims get pilloried

What is the proper word or words to describe those who objected on principle to Rutgers honoring Rice? The New York Times listed them, on May 15, under “Commencement Bigots.” In a rambling, self-contradictory piece full of false equivalencies and the occasional outright falsehood, Timothy Egan mocked those who objected to Rice over torture and war as “a small knot of protesters.” He compared the several hundred protesters at Rutgers to an unstated number of Oklahoma officials, Republicans, and gun rights advocates whose objections (unspecified) to – and demand for the arrest of – Attorney General Eric Holder led to his cancelling a graduation speech at the Oklahoma police academy. (The unwillingness of the nation’s top law enforcement official to stand up to this sort of intimidation seems even less principled than, and just as cowardly as Rice’s fear of appearing before peaceful students, but that’s another story.)

Egan plays the ad hominem card, suggesting that Rice’s life story (she “grew up in the segregated South and rose to become secretary of state”) gave her a pass against any criticism of what she did to get there. After blaming that knot of protesters, Egan writes of Rice’s desertion under fire, “It’s no contest who showed more class.” This may well be true, in the sense that she avoided further embarrassment to the ruling class.

In a marvelously disingenuous construction, Egan explains: “Near as I can tell, the forces of intolerance objected to her role in the Iraq war.” Does this guy have an editor? Is it really intolerant to object to giving an honorary law degree to a war criminal? If he really thought the Iraq war was the only objection, then this National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize winner simply didn’t do his basic homework. Turns out that denigration and minimization was just a pose. Four paragraphs later Egan acknowledges the real world basis for what he has called intolerance and has compared to climate-denial extremism: “The foreign policy that Rice guided for George W. Bush — two wars on the credit card, making torture a word associated with the United States — was clearly a debacle… history will be brutal.”

Name-calling and evasion pass for analysis at the Times

Egan’s own extreme view (“bigots” and “lefty thought police”) is rooted in a falsehood designed to deny the substantive reality of his supposed subject. “It matters little if the speaker is a convict or a seminarian, a statesman or a comedian,” Egan writes, referring to commencement speakers, but not to honorary degree recipients or the intended meaning of an honorary degree.

He does not discuss honorary degrees at all, even though the honorary degree represents the institution’s official blessing on the goodness of a person’s life. How do you defend the Rutgers decision to say, in effect, about Condoleezza Rice: “Your work and your standards are exemplary to all.” Egan himself has already agreed that’s not true. So he finds it much safer to avoid a question so real and difficult. Instead, he fulminates over the straw man argument about “free speech.” Egan’s column refers only once to honorary degrees, in passing, within a quote from Stephen Colbert, who got one at Knoxville College in 2006 and said:

The best career advice I can give you is to get your own TV show. It pays well, the hours are good, and you are famous. And eventually, some very nice people will give you a doctorate in fine arts for doing jack squat.

Those familiar with Colbert know that he works hard to be funny and tell the truth at the same time. Egan, if he made that effort, failed at both. But he got his own free speech, which he gets every week in the Times. The Times doesn’t let on whether it cares that Egan’s free speech is not honest. Maybe it’s enough that his column provides the paper with what too often passes for “balance” in American discourse. As Ronald Reagan once said, in one of his better Freudian slips, “Facts are stupid things.”

What John Adams said was, “Facts are stubborn things.” 

In her May 17 column, “Condi’s Lesson,” Maureen Dowd refers to Egan’s “commencement bigots,” without quite criticizing him. She, too, avoids any discussion of what an honorary degree might mean in a world with less cynicism. And she conflates Rice’s bailout with the banning of other speakers, even though they’re opposites, and Rutgers supported Rice till she quit. Even though Dowd discusses Rice as if she was only a commencement speaker, she gets Rice’s story right and tells it sympathetically.

Echoing a piece published May 14 in Reader Supported News, Dowd wrote: “For a militaristic imperialist, Rice caved awfully easily.” Instead, Dowd argued, Rice should have come to Rutgers and spoken her mind:

After all, there was always a chance, a small one, admittedly, but a chance, that Condi Rice would have looked into her soul and told the story of what happens when you succumb to the temptation to sell it….

What a wonderful lesson she could have taught those graduates about the perils of succeeding at any cost, about how moral shortcuts never lead to the right place.

The National University of Ireland, Galway, awarded Maureen Dowd an honorary Doctor of Literature degree in 2012, citing her for “an outstanding and distinctive contribution” to journalism and for being an “exceptional individual.” Her acceptance remarks were brief, humble, and funny.

Rice Coming to Vermont military school on June 19

As for Condoleezza Rice, she will have yet another opportunity to exercise her freedom of speech in Northfield, Vermont, on June 19 at the nation’s first private military college, as Norwich University describes itself. Norwich is not awarding her (or anyone) an honorary degree on this occasion. According to the April 7 announcement, “Dr. Rice pioneered a policy of transformational diplomacy and heralded the formation of new global governments based on democratic principles.” This will be her chance to report on how that’s going in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and all the other destabilized dominoes of the region.

Norwich history professor Rowland Brucken, according to Norwich news online, has an office where:

… a poster on the wall reads, ‘Human rights belong to everyone or they are guaranteed to no one.’ Another one quotes Dante, ‘The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in times of great moral crisis maintain their neutrality.’

Brucken has publicly questioned the choice of Rice to speak at Norwich and the first shoots of public protest have appeared.

William M. Boardman has over 40 years experience in theatre, radio, TV, print journalism, and non-fiction, including 20 years in the Vermont judiciary. He has received honors from Writers Guild of America, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Vermont Life magazine, and an Emmy Award nomination from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. A collection of his essays, EXCEPTIONAL: American Exceptionalism Takes Its Toll (2019) is available from Yorkland Publishing of Toronto or Amazon. This article was first published in Reader Supported News. Read other articles by William.