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What the Honor Means

Some Informal Thoughts on the University's Practice

Gary S. Hauk, Vice President and Deputy to the President:

There is no simple explanation for what the University is trying to accomplish by awarding honorary degrees. The awarding of an honorary degree traditionally honors not only the individual receiving the degree but also the University; therefore, in addition to the question of an individual’s merit, an equally compelling question is what the degree signifies or implies about Emory. Often a person's mere presence is regarded as enough to honor us (I think of Desmond Tutu in this way).

The only explicit criterion insisted upon is that nominees should have distinguished themselves in scholarship, public service, or the professions. At the same time, Emory makes clear – and the Honorary Degrees Committee takes very seriously – that candidates should have some connection to the University, however tenuous. In short, why does an honorary degree from Emory, of all places, for this particular person, of all persons, make sense?

Although the procedures for the Committee on Honorary Degrees are not spelled out formally, a number of traditional considerations govern the committee’s deliberations. To begin with, the committee strives to reach consensus in putting together a slate of four honorees. (Trustees have come to feel that the optimum number is five or less, and in recent years have instructed the committee or the University President to invite no more than that number.) The committee methodically pares down the list of nominees over the course of three weeks’ discussion to produce a balanced slate. “Balanced” here means representative, in terms of race, gender, and discipline. Other factors weighed in preliminary selection include those affecting a candidate’s ability physically to attend the Commencement ceremony, such as age and travel. Clearly, a slate of half-a-dozen names cannot be fully balanced, and so the committee pays some attention to previous years’ honorees by asking, for instance, not only whether a particular candidate in a discipline is worthy but also how recently someone in that discipline has been honored. Surprisingly, the committee is usually able to whittle its way to consensus in relatively short order.

A second traditional consideration in the committee’s work is the degree of intellectual weight adhering to the achievements for which a nominee has been recommended. For instance, while the University has awarded honorary degrees to philanthropists, invariably they have been philanthropists whose contributions were motivated by an intellectual vision or an overarching goal for the university or for the general public welfare. Most often the philanthropist has initiated this vision rather than simply responding to a request for support. Recognition of philanthropy through the awarding of an honorary degree is never simply a bow toward someone who has put up a sufficient amount of money. Always such recognition pays tribute to the level of academic achievement, intellectual ferment, or moral discourse that has derived from the philanthropist's attention to the needs of the community of scholarship. In the case of Michael Carlos, for instance, the committee viewed his largesse to the museum as having been directed by a considerable knowledge about Classical art, of which he is himself a collector. Robert Woodruff, besides paying for seemingly half the campus buildings, was also quite simply in a league of his own as a business intelligence. Other honorary doctors – e.g., Wilton Looney and Wilbur Glenn – have been recognized not only for their commitments to Emory but also for their far-reaching service and influence for good.

A third consideration is the committee's unwritten policy of trying to avoid either considering or awarding a degree to someone running for public office. Thus, because of the frequency of congressional races, which means that incumbents are almost always running, Emory has never given an honorary degree to an incumbent Georgia Congressional representative. Indeed, Emory has given very few honorary degrees to elected public servants while they are in office, Governor Zell Miller being the most recent exception.

Finally, a word about the relation of honorary degrees and the Commencement speaker. The choice of the Commencement speaker is the President’s. Normally the speaker is of sufficient stature that the Honorary Degrees Committee considers him or her for a degree, and frequently the speaker is awarded a degree. There is nothing automatic about this, however.