Honoris causa

Representing an array of accomplishments in law, education, public service, journalism, letters, and medicine, the 1996 slate of seven honorary degree recipients brought the number of recipients of Emory's highest honor to 493. This year marked the 150th year of the tradition, which began in 1846 when Emory conferred its first doctoral degree, honoris causa, on record: a doctor of divinity degree (D.D.) to William H. Ellison (left), president of Wesleyan Female College in Macon from 1840 to 1851. As Emory President S. Walter Martin wrote of the practice in 1958, "The University, if it does this job conscientiously and well, is furthering its fundamental commitment to the production of truly and broadly educated people. Certainly, it is calling attention to those qualities to which it is committed as an institution."

When Harvard University conferred an honorary doctor of divinity degree on its president, Increase Mather, in 1692, it awarded the first honorary degree in America and began a longstanding practice of recognizing educators and members of the clergy with the distinction. While Emory held fast to that tradition before the turn of the century, in 1902 the University bestowed a doctor of literature degree (Litt.D.) on the author of the Uncle Remus tales, Joel Chandler Harris, marking a broadening of the field of Emory honorary degree candidates.

Although the award often pays tribute to an individual's achievements over a lifetime, an honorary degree can also serve as a sign of the times. At a special convocation in December 1944, as the nation hoped for an era of peace at the close of World War II, a doctor of laws degree (LL.D.) was awarded to Georgia U.S. Senator Walter Franklin George and former Secretary of State Cordell Hull (in absentia). "We cannot and must not lose the faith that moral force yet rules the world," Senator George told the gathering. "If the great powers are now able to set up the ideal of world peace and security, let us believe that the ideal will draw all men unto it." Similarly, in 1988, at the height of the struggle against the South African system of apartheid, Desmond Tutu, Episcopal archbishop of Cape Town and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, received an honorary D.D. degree from Emory.

The University has frequently sought honorary degree candidates among its own educators and alumni. In 1930, Tommie Dora Barker, who orchestrated the beginnings of Emory's library school and twice served as its director, became the first woman to receive an Emory honorary degree, a Litt.D. The University has also granted honorary degrees within familial ranks. Three members of the Candler family--John (LL.D. 1924), Warren (doctor of humane letters 1935), and Charles (LL.D. 1942)--received the distinction, as did brothers and Emory benefactors Robert (LL.D. 1979) and George Woodruff (LL.D. 1980).

Each year, the selection process for honorary degree candidates at Emory begins during the fall semester when Secretary of the University Gary S. Hauk invites nominations from the faculty. Over the next several months, a committee of faculty, students, trustees, and administrators deliberates, arriving at a slate of four to seven honorees broadly representative of discipline and distinction. The intellectual substance of the nominee's work is also considered. "For instance," says Hauk, "while the University has awarded honorary degrees to philanthropists, almost invariably they have been philanthropists whose contributions were motivated by an intellectual vision or overarching goal for the University or for the general public welfare."

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