May 4, 1998
Volume 50, No. 31
Much hard work hidden behind bestowment of honorary degrees
When Georgia Gov. Zell Miller, along with three other recipients, is handed his honorary degree from Emory next Monday, it will represent the pinnacle of a process nearly two years in the making. But it won't be the end.
The University's honorary degree procedure is a meticulous and patient undertaking that begins approximately 20 months prior to the actual conferment of diplomas. For instance, the four recipients this year-Miller, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, biologist Bruce Alberts and Justice Phyllis Kravitch-were nominated in the fall of 1996, at the very latest. From there their names progressed through a meandering channel of meetings of the honorary degrees committee, the University Senate and the Board of Trustees, each holding votes along the way, until finally arriving on President Bill Chace's desk sometime last summer, when he personally contacted the individuals and invited them to receive a degree.
Gary Hauk, secretary of the University, has served ex officio on the honorary degrees committee for 10 years, and his office shepherds the process along. Each fall Hauk issues a letter to faculty and places an ad in The Wheel inviting anyone in the community to nominate individuals for honorary degrees. Once the letters start to come in, the work of the committee-made up of 16 or 18 faculty, administrators and students-gets started.
"My office compiles a thick notebook of all these nominations, including nominations that have been carried over from the last five years," Hauk said. "So we usually have 50 or 60 nominations to consider and give them all to the committee members early in December. Then about the middle of January, the committee starts meeting once a week and begins winnowing this list down to about four or five people."
All candidates' names are kept confidential until those invited have accepted. The whole procedure used to take place within a single academic year, with candidates being invited in December to receive a degree the following May, but Hauk said for many people, such as political figures and renowned artists, six months is short notice to clear space on a calendar, and some candidates had to decline because of conflicts.
It's impossible to say just what qualifies someone for an Emory honorary degree. One glance at the list of recipients-from Mikhail Gorbachev to Eudora Welty to Elizabeth Dole to Hank Aaron-shows the criteria are not rigid as far as type of accomplishments, but recipients all have made "extraordinary achievement in the arts or in scholarship or in one of the professions, [or have demonstrated] service to humanity," Hauk said. All recipients also must have some sort of connection to the University. With certain individuals, like former President Jimmy Carter, the Emory connection is obvious; with others, it may not be quite so apparent.
"There are other ways scholars may have connections with our faculty, having collaborated with them on research or in writing books," Hauk said, "or even connections as tenuous as, say, a faculty member's service program here in Atlanta being inspired by the honoree.
"But there has to be a connection," he continued. "There is an endless variety of very accomplished people whom it would be right for anyone to honor and acclaim. Take Seiji Ozawa, the director of the Boston Symphony. A great person, and yet why does it make sense for Emory, of all institutions, to ask the music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra to come to Atlanta to receive an honorary degree when we've never had any contact with him?"
Besides taking into account past affiliations, the committee took steps to encourage an ongoing, future relationship with honorary degree recipients. Co-chair Rudolph Byrd, associate professor and director of African American Studies, said this year's recipients for the first time will participate in luncheons to share their knowledge with graduating students.
"Graduation is a period of transition for everybody, so we'd like the candidates to assist our students in thinking about how to make these kinds of transitions," Byrd said. "At this point it's luncheons, but we're looking down the road to symposia and other informal occasions where the candidates can talk about what it means to receive a degree from Emory and the trajectory of their own lives."