Varying degrees of pride Academia: Honorary certificates are nice, but what do they get you?


Hillary Rodham Clinton isn't saying where she'll store the gold leaf lettering, heavy cream-colored stock and florid citation of the honorary degree she receives Thursday from the University of Maryland College Park. Maybe it will reside with the eight others she has been awarded since her husband took office. Perhaps it will land crumpled in the wastebasket. It might even find its way into the now-famous "book room" of the White House, where other important documents have been known to turn up.

Whatever becomes of it, the degree's future is not as mysterious as its actual worth.

It's the season of honorary degrees and commencement ceremonies. Long-suffering students must sit through one more "guest lecture" before securing their diplomas, while schools lavish "honorary degrees" on those who've never even shown up for a class.

Academia, of course, takes the ritual seriously. Most colleges and universities labor at least a year to identify ideal honorees, and those nominations typically travel through extensive bureaucratic channels before invitations are mailed. Then there's the painstaking effort to write superfluous citations that match honorees' accomplishments. But what about the degrees' true value?

In tangible terms, the honors entitle recipients to little more than an alumni magazine subscription and solicitation for financial contributions. Still, sentimental importance is in the eyes of the beholder.

To James O'Conor, a partner in the real estate firm O'Conor, Piper and Flynn and this year's Towson State honoree, the document is priceless; he has already reserved a space on his office wall, among the Entrepreneur of the Year and Ancient Order of Hibernians Irishman of the Year awards.

"Sincerely, this was unexpected," he said. "I'm honored."

For Russell Baker, nine-time honorary degree recipient (including one from Johns Hopkins in 1983), it is not the long-forgotten documents that hold cache -- it's the hoods recipients wear during the ceremonies.

"I hang them in my closet; they're colorful," says the New York Times columnist, who is pretty colorful himself. "I keep thinking one day I'll wear them to a summer cocktail party."

To institutions of higher learning, the importance seems to vary as widely. "They can put it on their resume," spokeswoman Lisa Waskiewicz said of the College of Notre Dame's recipients, Cokie Roberts of ABC News and poet Gwendolyn Brooks -- two women who presumably already have a tough time fitting their credentials on an 8 1/2 -by-11 piece of paper.

Loyola spokesman Mark Kelly said the purpose of the degrees is to "make [the recipients] feel good while they're sitting in the hot sun all day."

At least one Maryland institution finds the tradition meaningless. "Since they haven't completed the course of study, it wouldn't be appropriate to give them a degree," Barbara Goyette, a St. Johns College spokeswoman said. In recent years, though, the college has been known to bestow a meaningless title or two. This year, Stephen Feinberg, chairman of the college's Board of Visitors and Governors, and Ray Cave, head of the school's capital campaign, will be made honorary fellows.

"I'm not sure what it means; they just kind of made it up," Goyette said.

Bridget Puzon, editor of Liberal Education, the Association of American Colleges and Universities journal, reveals, without naming names, that some institutions choose their honorees for purely selfish reasons. Honorary degrees, she said, are often given "to gain the attention of an important person. . . . That person might be a millionaire and they want their attention for obvious reasons."

Rare is the institution that tracks, or admits it tracks, financial contributions before and after an honorary degree is bestowed. "That's not the point of any honorary degree. I will not say that some people don't give more money after they've received one, but that's not the purpose of it," said Hopkins spokesman Dennis O'Shea.

And the criteria that academics use to identify recipients is just as difficult to pin down. Roberts and Brooks are earning their degrees because Notre Dame administrators want "to honor role models." Sadako Ogata, the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, will get a degree at Hopkins because officials there want "to recognize the achievement of a person of real distinction." The same reason is landing actor and author Bob Keeshan, otherwise known as Captain Kangaroo, a doctorate of humane letters at Western Maryland College on Saturday.

Real distinction? Captain Kangaroo?

"He's responsible for most happy adults," insisted spokeswoman Joyce Muller. She added that a committee at the Westminster college uses five criteria to choose recipients, the fifth being "a good reason why."

Like the first lady, Keeshan is coy about his plans for the document. He said only that he'll forgo having it appraised. "It's not like there's a big market for them."

The captain now has 18 honorary degrees -- but no real one. He left Fordham University in his third year to join the staff of "The Howdy Doody Show."

Pub Date: 5/21/96

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad