Honorary DLitt for luminaries hasn’t gone well with masses

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Honorary DLitt for luminaries hasn’t gone well with masses

Thursday, 08 April 2021 | BISWARAJ PATNAIK

The once-highly reputed Utkal University suddenly decided to award honorary DLitt to five routinely-eminent persons from Odisha placed across the country in respectable positions at its recent convocation.

The Doctor of Science (DSc), Doctor of Literature (DLitt) and Doctor of Laws (LLD) are the highest post-doctoral degrees of any university. But lately, these awards are dumped on people with the sole objective of gaining fame rather than giving any eminence to the gullible, nay, ‘crazy for title’.

The Utkal University carefully chose as recipients former IAS-cadre bureaucrats; Reserve Bank of India Governor Shaktikanta Das; India’s Comptroller and Auditor General Girish Chandra Murmu, also the chairman of the panel of external auditors of the United Nations; Director of Bhabha Atomic Research Centre Ajit Kumar Mohanty and Advisor of Odisha Adarsh Vidyalaya Sangathan Bijaya Kumar Sahu; and, above all, an Orissa High Court judge Justice Sanju Panda.

This honorary gesture is turned down by most sensitive and discreet people as it gets them nowhere and because they have had no opportunity to work hard to earn the award. Secondly, because these honorary freebies don’t elevate them any further as they have climbed upto the pinnacle of their domains.  What is horrific is that a sitting High Court judge responded to a meaningless DLitt given at a public function. She is a very decent, ethically superb, aboveboard judicial luminary, but accepting the honorary cosmetics sends out wafts of ‘conflict of interest’ smoke to become fire later.

A university is a public entity likely to be a litigant at a court where Justice Panda may be the top justice giver.

When Charles I had moved his court to Oxford in 1642, the university was prevailed upon by the King to award 350 honorary degrees (in all faculties, including doctorates where applicable) between November of that year and the following February, the university responded by presenting the King with a petition arguing that the practice of conferring large numbers of honorary degrees was damaging to the university, not just to its reputation as a seat of learning but also financially.

It asked the King not to present any scholar for a degree unless he was “capable by our Statutes, & give Caution to perform his Exercises, and pay all usual fees”. Since 1892, the Temple University had awarded over 900 honorary degrees.

Truly, honorary degrees are hardly worth anything. Like the title implies, these degrees are awarded to honour celebrities to only keep them in good humour and get the status of own institutions undeservingly elevated to attract students from high society and affluent families.

These degrees are only makebelieve and purely cosmetic, which hold no real-world value beyond this. Mr Levine, President of Teachers College at Columbia University, once admitted publicly that honorary degrees are about two things: money and publicity. “Most times, they are used to reward donors who have given money; sometimes, they are used to draw celebrities to make the graduation look special,” he had told The New York Times. 

In around 2007, there was a medium-sized scandal in the UK known as the ‘cash for honours’, the broad premise being that various wealthy people had purchased knighthoods and other honours by paying money to political parties. The public was suitably outraged; a public inquiry was held; and eventually, as most scandals do, it died out.

But it is curious nonetheless that although the British public were suitably outraged about public honours being conferred in return for cash, nobody ever seems to exhibit the same level of concerns with public universities doing exactly the same thing to raise own image.

Truly-qualified scholars have always hated the concept of ‘honorary degrees’.  In no other field of human endeavour do universities give out so many senior qualifications to those who have not earned them. After all, nobody is made an honorary airline pilot or an honorary surgeon.

The history of honorary degrees is long and undistinguished. The first honorary degree was believed to have been given to Lionel Woodville in 1478 by the Oxford University because, well, basically he was wealthy, well-connected and powerful.  The US universities got started before the USA was even a country, and have been even more prolific. Since 1702, Yale has given out on average just under-10 honorary doctorates each year.

Even if one accepts the principle of honorary degrees for public figures, the worthiness of some of those honoured can be called into question. 

Regardless of one's admiration for their works in their chosen fields, it is a little hard to laud the academic achievements of honourees. The public by now knows too well that honorary doctorates, etc., are just a case of universities trying to sprinkle a little publicity pixie dust by giving out honours to celebrities.

However, it seems to have spread well beyond the odd musician, sports star and actor. Now, the honorary degree factory is a machine; and the strong suspicion must be that many of the more anonymous recipients of some of these degrees are being rewarded for contributions of a much narrower kind. Worse still, the old convention that that honorary doctorate was treated as purely honorary seems to have gone.

Now, more and more of these honorary recipients are actually using the title "doctor" as if they had spent years in study and research and published a doctoral quality thesis! The universities themselves seem to tacitly approve this as increasing numbers state on their websites that honorary recipients using the title doctor is now a matter of ‘personal choice’ rather than a major social faux pas.

And when recognised academic institutions start encouraging donors and alumni with honorary degrees so that those persons can bandy themselves around with the title of doctor, well, those academic institutions start to look an awful lot more like the degree mills where one just sends them a cheque and they send you the degree based upon your ‘life experiences’.

The universities may profit, but the real losers are the great majority who work hard and show academic endeavour to obtain their degrees.Stanford and Cornell lead a worryingly small group of universities that refuse to give honorary degrees although they continue recognising achievements of public luminaries. Of course, there are plenty of other dishonourable practices that universities do for money.

The "Oxbridge MA" is a scam as old as time. And increasingly, British legal training institutions give out what is basically a free LLM for anyone who completes basic legal vocational training and tacks on a short thesis.

 But universities seem happy to keep pumping out paper for either cash or celebrity; and the wealthy and famous seem happy to smile and pretend that they have earned something which they haven't.

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