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Doctorates a dime a dozen?

The Mahanayake Theras of the three Nikayas recently requested President Mahinda Rajapaksa to ban organisations that award doctorates and titles like Deshamanya, Deshabandu, Deshashakthi to dubious people who possessed little educational qualifications.

In their letter they said: "From ancient times honorary titles have been awarded by our institutions to persons of high learning, those who display exceptional qualities and serve the people and the country in keeping with the traditions laid down by the Buddha. In the times of ancient kings too they awarded such titles in accordance with tradition. At present our institutions too award such titles in keeping with tradition and safeguarding the honour of the titles and the institutions.

However in recent times we have seen such titles being awarded by dubious organisations that portion out these honours for monetary gains and other favours. This has demeaned the value of the titles given by genuine institutions and belittled those who have been awarded genuine honours.

"It can be observed that titles like Deshabandu, Deshamanya and Deshashakthi had been awarded to persons who have not contributed in any way to the betterment of society. People looked down by decent society have been awarded honorary doctorates that should be given by accepted universities to persons of learning and high standing. This is leading to a certain kind of social menace.

Therefore we request the President to take urgent measures under the existing legal framework to ban these organisations and safeguard the honour of those titles".

Cabinet subsequently decided to appoint a committee to look into the awarding of honorary doctorates and other academic titles by private educational institutions. The committee comprises the secretaries of five ministries, steered by the Minister of Education.

Historical origins

The practice of offering honorary status dates back to the middle ages, when for various reasons a university might be persuaded, or otherwise see fit, to grant exemption from some or all of the usual statutory requirements for award of a degree.

The first recorded honorary degree was awarded to Lionel Woodville in the late 1470s by the University of Oxford. He later became Bishop of Salisbury. In the latter part of the sixteenth century, the granting of honorary degrees became quite common, especially on the occasion of royal visits to Oxford or Cambridge.

On the visit of James I to Oxford in 1605, for example, forty three members of his retinue received the degree of Master of Arts, and the Register of Convocation explicitly states that these were full degrees, carrying the usual privileges (such as voting rights in Convocation and Congregation).

Modern practice

Today, in most accredited universities, the Honorary Doctorates are usually awarded at regular graduation ceremonies, at which the recipients are often invited to make a speech of acceptance before the assembled faculty and graduates - an event which often forms the highlight of the ceremony. Generally universities nominate several persons each year for Honorary Doctorates; these nominees usually go through several committees before receiving approval.

The term honorary degree is a slight misnomer: honoris causa degrees, being awarded by a university under the terms of its charter, may be considered to have technically the same standing as 'real' degrees, except where explicitly stated to the contrary. Honorary degrees are often considered not to be of the same standing as substantive degrees, except where the recipient has demonstrated an appropriate level of academic scholarship that would ordinarily qualify them for the award of a substantive degree.

Although higher doctorates such as DSc, DLitt, etc, are often awarded honoris causa, in many countries (notably the UK, Australia and New Zealand) it is possible formally to earn such a degree. This typically involves the submission of a portfolio of peer-refereed research, usually undertaken over a number of years, which has made a substantial contribution to the academic field in question.

The university will appoint a panel of examiners who will consider the case and prepare a report recommending whether or not the degree be awarded. Usually, the applicant must have some strong formal connection with the university in question, for example full-time academic staff, or graduates of several years' standing.

Right and privileges

Between the two extremes of honouring celebrities and formally assessing a portfolio of research, many universities use honorary degrees to recognise achievements of intellectual rigor that are comparable to an earned degree. Some specialised societies award honorary fellowships in the same way as honorary degrees are awarded by universities, and for similar reasons.

Traditionally an honorary degree or Doctorate is a university's way of marking excellence and achievement. Cambridge claims it only awards them to "members of the royal family, British subjects who are of conspicuous merit or have done good service to the State or to the university and foreigners of distinction". The roll call of those deemed sufficiently worthy by the university includes Albert Einstein, Nelson Mandela and Mother Teresa.

The reason universities are willing to confer honours on celebrities is that both sides win. The university gets publicity by reaching out an academic hand of welcome to someone famous, while the personality gets to wear scarlet gowns with silk facings and soft black velvet bonnets - sometimes with a golden tassel.

No sensible person would challenge a University's right and privilege to offer degrees and Doctorates to deserving personalities. But the crisis arises, as the Mahanayake Theras say, when some institutions grant honorary doctorates in exchange for large donations.

Such honorary Doctorate recipients, particularly those who neither have prior academic qualifications, nor excellence in life have been criticised if they insist on being called 'Doctor' as a result of their award.

The honorific may mislead the general public about their qualifications.

This problem is not specific to Sri Lanka. A number of other countries also faced the same situation. For example, in 2001, George W. Bush received an honorary degree from Yale University where he had earned his bachelor's degree in history in 1968.

The majority of students and faculty chose to boycott the university's 300th commencement.

In 1985, the University of Oxford voted to refuse Margaret Thatcher an honorary degree in protest against her cuts in funding for higher education. This award had always previously been given to all Prime Ministers who had been educated at Oxford.

In 2007 protesters demanded that the University of Edinburgh revoke an honorary degree awarded to Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe in 1984.

The University subsequently revealed plans to review its honorary degree policy and strip certain figures of their honorary degrees who did not deserve them.

They stipulated that when considering revoking the honorary degree of a political figure, such reasons as human rights abuse or political corruption would be considered. As a result, it was announced that Mugabe had been stripped of his honorary degree.

Solutions

Finally, we are faced with the 64-thousand dollar question. What can our authorities do about it? Taking the cue from other countries, I venture to suggest two solutions.

In many countries, including the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States, it is not usual for an honorary doctor to use the formal title of 'doctor,' regardless of the background circumstances for the award.

The recipient of an honorary degree might add the degree title after the name, but it will always be made clear that the degree is honorary by adding 'honorary' or 'honoris causa' or 'h.c.' in parenthesis after the degree title. In many countries, one who holds an honorary doctorate may use the title 'doctor' before the name, abbreviated Dr.(h.c.). Sometimes, they use 'Hon' before the degree letters, for example, Hon D Mus.

In recent years, some universities have adopted entirely separate post nominal titles for honorary degrees. This is in part due to the confusion that honorary degrees have caused. It is now common to use certain degrees, such as LL.D. or Hon.D., as purely honorary. For instance, an honorary doctor of the Auckland University of Technology takes the special title Hon.D. instead of the usual Ph.D. Some universities, including the Open University grant Doctorates of the University (D.Univ.) to selected nominees, while awarding Ph.D. or Ed. D. degrees to those who have fulfilled the academic requirements.

Most American universities award the degrees of LL.D. (Doctor of Laws), Litt.D. (Doctor of Letters), L.H.D. (Doctor of Humane Letters), Sc.D. (Doctor of Science), Ped.D. (Doctor of Pedagogy) and D.D. (Doctor of Divinity) only as honorary degrees. American universities do not have the system of 'higher doctorates' used in the UK and at other institutes around the world.

My second solution is this: the authority to grant academic, professional, or other degrees and Doctorates recognising learning or achievement should not be allowed to include as the functions of an institution of education, unless its charter indicate the nature of the degrees to be granted; and no institution should grant academic or professional degrees without specific authorisation from the University Grants Commission.

The UGC is the sole authority in Sri Lanka to approve degree awarding institutes. It enjoys the statutory powers under Higher Education Act of 1978 to do so. Educationalists say that it is also the moral obligation of UGC to uphold the dignity of the academic community.

If we are not careful, there is indeed a real danger that in the near future - (or indeed are we already there?) the honorary doctorates granted by our higher education institutions, would be regarded no better than those issued by dubious organisations for which Sri Lankans seem quite willing to pay good prices. Let sanity prevail!

 

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