The end of honorary degrees?

Published May 15, 2018 at 4:00pm

Disgraced comic Bill Cosby, now a convicted sex offender, is losing degrees faster than a garden thermometer in a midwinter snowstorm.

Over the years, Cosby has racked up roughly five dozen honorary doctorates. Notre Dame, Johns Hopkins, Boston College and Carnegie Mellon have revoked his degrees in the wake of his April 26 conviction on sexual assault charges in Pennsylvania.

North Carolina A&T State revoked the honorary degree it issued to Cosby a decade ago, and University of North Carolina Chancellor Carol Folt has asked trustees to claw back his UNC sheepskin, too.

No one could blame institutions of higher learning for wanting to distance themselves from Cosby, who jurors determined drugged and sexually assaulted Temple University official Andrea Constand. While UNC is well within its rights to disavow the honor, it’s worth asking why reputable colleges and universities routinely stamp their seals on unearned doctorates for celebrities high and petty in the first place.

The questionable practice dates to at least 1470, when no less an academic powerhouse than Oxford gave an honorary degree to a cleric who later became bishop of Salisbury. The tradition caught on, and English colleges became diploma mills for earls and barons who never cracked a book or scribbled on parchment in their storied halls.

There’s a cogent case to be made for recognizing self-tutored poets, composers, authors and inventors with an honorary degree when they produce a body of work that equals or outshines that of their well-schooled peers. Call it narrowing the gap between theory and practice, a credit-by-exam program taken to its logical conclusion. But such honorees are the exception rather than the rule in modern American academia.

Too often, the doctorates are catnip for celebrities who give commencement speeches, perhaps with the hope that they’ll join the donor rolls. They’re at best a publicity stunt -- glowing news stories about such actual degree recipients as Orlando Bloom, Jimmy Kimmel and Jon Bon Jovi always follow the presentations -- and at worst a transparent plea for cash.

If all it takes to receive a doctorate is achieving fame and amassing wealth, what makes these degrees different from vanity awards such as “who’s who” lists and fake honor societies that induct anyone who pays for the privilege?

The Latin term for an unearned degree is one that is presented “honoris causa,” or “for the sake of honor.” The same inscription is etched on the Pulitzer Prize medallion, which is rarer and more prestigious than a run-of-the-mill doctorate. If universities want to recognize exceptional achievement, why not do so with a plaque, medal, trophy or other such award?