Jonah Lewis: Honorary degrees aren’t worth the trouble

On the first day of the spring semester, students were welcomed back with a surprising announcement: The University said it would reverse course and rescind the honorary degree it gave to Bill Cosby in 1997 due to students’ concerns about escalating allegations of sexual assault against him.

This, of course, was the right decision. Bill Cosby allegedly committed crimes of an unspeakable magnitude, and continuing to honor him in light of that would be wrong. But the controversy over Cosby’s honorary degree reveals a larger problem: Honorary degrees can bring with them huge public relations nightmares.

These degrees provide no real benefit to the University, and GW would be better off if it seriously considered ending the practice altogether.

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Jonah Lewis

If GW decided to stop giving out these degrees, it would hardly be the first institution to do so. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Cornell and Stanford universities have longstanding policies against issuing honorary degrees. And the University of Virginia has never given out the degrees, based on the idea that they could embroil the campus community in controversy.

There’s no real downside in refusing to give out honorary degrees. While some say an honorary degree is a good way to build a relationship that could lead to a donation, GW shouldn’t rely on them. GW clearly has no problem raising eye-popping amounts of money, even without many high-profile mega gifts.

Honorary degrees are supposed to be one of the most prestigious honors a university can give to an individual who is not currently a student. While these degrees do not hold the weight of an earned degree, they allow GW to “inspire the graduating class, bring honor to the university, and pay tribute to our diverse nation,” according to the University’s honorary degree criteria.

At the time, Cosby’s award did seem fitting. He was a well-known comedian who received many honorary degrees from other universities, and was a familiar face for graduating classes who grew up seeing the comedian on TV.

But GW’s initial reasoning for upholding that honor ignored the biggest problem with these degrees: The honor conferred by the University is a tacit endorsement of an honoree’s personal, professional and political life. Conferring an honorary degree on an individual is tantamount to putting the weight of the University behind that individual. Even if Cosby was deserving of the award at the time it was given, it has since come to light that his actions make him unworthy of the honor. University President Steven Knapp even acknowledged this in his announcement about rescinding Cosby’s degree.

GW isn’t the only school subject to the controversy that can follow honorary degrees. In 2008, Washington University in St. Louis, a peer school, honored conservative thinker Phyllis Schlafly with an honorary degree, which led to an open protest of Schlafly’s anti-feminist views in the middle of the school’s commencement ceremony.

The University had its own controversy surrounding Schlafly when Young America’s Foundation invited her to speak on campus in 2012. While one can disagree with Schlafly’s abhorrent views, she did have the right to freely express them on our college campus. But inviting someone to speak or teach at a university is much different than giving them an honorary degree. Students at Washington University recognized this: Their school was not simply promoting dialogue on campus – they were actively lending their support to Schlafly and her views.

Honoring famous individuals is particularly dangerous because their fame means all of their actions are bound to be scrutinized, and are more likely than others to entangle the institution in drama like that of the Cosby case. But even more, by using honorary degrees as flashy handouts to bring attention to the University, we cheapen the serious academic nature that our earned degrees ought to confer.

Whether or not a recipient of an honorary degree is controversial, or becomes controversial, honorary degrees are not representative of the serious academic environment we maintain.

Honorary degrees are high-profile honors and are a “way to recognize achievements of people respected within the institution as well as to add glitter to the ceremony,” wrote New York Times columnist Karen Arenson. But while it is certainly fun to have famous individuals at Commencement to receive honorary degrees, the ceremony could go on without them.

Ultimately, honorary degrees are more trouble than they’re worth. While few honorees will turn out like Cosby, the University should not be in the business of gold starring celebrities’ careers. Even when the awards are deserved without question, the focus on celebrity cheapens a commencement ceremony that should be about our accomplishments.

Jonah Lewis, a senior double-majoring in sociology and political science, is a Hatchet columnist. Want to respond to this piece? Submit a letter to the editor.

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