All the President’s Degrees

With all the extraordinary events in the US, Paul Greatrix brings us news of two very rapid honorary degree revocations.

Paul Greatrix is Registrar at The University of Nottingham, author and creator of Registrarism and a Contributing Editor of Wonkhe.

It’s not often honorary degrees are in the news but with all the extraordinary events in the US the behaviour of the country’s former President has led to two very rapid honorary degree revocations.

Whilst the revocation of honorary degrees is becoming ever more common since Keele University got the ball rolling by withdrawing the Honorary Degree it had awarded to Kurt Waldheim in 1980 and then Edinburgh University revoked Robert Mugabe’s honorary back in 2007, it is pretty rare for a serving head of state to be stripped of honours.

Still, it has happened to Donald Trump. Perhaps surprisingly, or perhaps not, Trump has been awarded only five honorary degrees and two of them are from the same university. One of them was rescinded before he took office by Robert Gordon University which had awarded an honorary to him in 2010 but after he made a speech calling for Muslims to be banned from entering the US an online petition was launched to have it revoked. Within a few days it was:

A spokesman for RGU said: “In 2010 Robert Gordon University awarded an honourary DBA to Mr Donald Trump, in recognition of his achievements as an entrepreneur and businessman.
“In the court of the current US election campaign, Mr Trump has made a number of statements that are wholly incompatible with the ehtos and values of the university.
“The university has therefore decided to revoke its award of the honorary degree.”
The degree was awarded when Mr Trump had been building his £750 million golf course in Menie and RGU said it had chosen to confer the honour in recognition of his business acumen, entrepreneurial vision and the long-term future his company had planned in the north-east.

There has long been a campaign to seek revocation of his honorary from LeHigh University (awarded in 1988) but it took the events of the final days of Trump’s term for this finally to happen:

Lehigh University has revoked an honorary degree that President Trump held for more than 30 years. The Pennsylvania school’s board of trustees held a special vote this week after Trump incited an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
Numerous petitions had previously sought to rescind the honor for Trump, who was awarded the degree when he spoke at the school’s commencement ceremony in 1988.
Three years ago, one such effort garnered nearly 80,000 signatures. That petition drive also presented a point-by-point argument that accused the president of falling short of the university’s values.
“This individual should reflect the goals and values of Lehigh University,” the petition noted, quoting the school’s official policy for commencement speakers, who are routinely awarded honorary degrees. “Nominees should be someone whose work and achievements reflect our value system at Lehigh.”
On Thursday, Lehigh University President John Simon issued a statement calling the events at the Capitol a “violent assault” on U.S. democracy, the will of the American people and the transfer of power.

On the same day Wagner College also announced, in a rather terse statement, that it was revoking the honorary it had awarded him in 2004.

This leaves Trump with just two honorary degrees, both from his friend Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. He was awarded an honorary DBA by Liberty in 2012 and then a second honorary, a Doctor of Laws, in 2017.

Liberty doesn’t look like revoking these anytime soon although there is a campaign for them to do so. And there are some who argue that they should award him another one:

Former Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr., who gave Trump those honorary degrees, released the following statement to 10 News

“I’d give him another degree if I was still at LU. He’s done nothing wrong but had an election stolen from him by thugs. He said nothing to incite violence at that rally. And he fulfilled all his campaign promises as president. That almost never happened before.”

So that series of blatant untruths would make a further honorary alright then.

There is, incidentally, a full list of Trump’s other honours here which notes that there is a Donald J. Trump Boulevard named in the suburb of Kamez north of Tirana, Albania. They might be considering renaming that street now.

A message to you Rudy

Someone else who has been in the news in recent months (as well as appearing in the parking lot at Four Seasons Landscaping) is Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s not wholly successful lawyer. Giuliani has a number of honours including an Honorary Knighthood and several honorary degrees.

However, as recently reported, there is now one award which has been removed from the CV as he has had his honorary degree from Middlebury College revoked:

Updated Honorary Degree Statement January 12, 2021
Middlebury College released the following statement earlier today.
Middlebury College has made the decision to revoke the honorary degree it presented to presidential attorney Rudolph Giuliani in 2005, and has communicated this to Mr. Giuliani’s office.

No doubt the four other institutions which have awarded honoraries to Giuliani are considering their positions too.

Interestingly, in further fallout from the events of 6 January in Washington DC, one of Grinnell College’s honorary degree recipients, a member of the US House of Representatives, clearly saw the writing on the wall:

The insurrection of January 6 in the nation’s capital and its aftermath continue to reveal how the words and actions of individuals and groups can safeguard or undermine democracy. The acts of those who supported or otherwise gave credence to a baseless challenge to an election that had been certified as free and fair multiple times by multiple processes have threatened the electoral process and the peaceful transfer of power. These acts have been rebuked and condemned in the United States and across the world.

On Sunday evening, the College received a petition asking for the revocation of the honorary degree awarded to U.S. Representative Tom Cole ’71 in 2016 in response to his objection to the certification of the Electoral College votes for the next president of the United States. Members of the Board of Trustees, campus leaders, and I prepared to review Grinnell’s honorary degree processes and principles, as well as the historical and constitutional context within which Rep. Cole acted. This review was to inform the necessary deliberations of the governing bodies that would be involved with a decision to revoke an honorary degree.

On Monday, Rep. Cole contacted my office to request a meeting. On Tuesday afternoon, Rep. Cole called me and voluntarily relinquished his honorary degree. The College affirms that Rep. Cole no longer holds an honorary degree from Grinnell College.

Revocations, or voluntary returns, of honorary degrees will no doubt continue in the fall out from Trump’s departure from office.

Meanwhile the Cosby show continues for another season…

The most striking revocations in recent times have been those of Bill Cosby’s 60 plus honorary degrees. Over the past few years he has bee stripped of most of these but still appears to have 10 remaining. This handy list shows the full detail of all of those degrees awarded and when they were revoked.

As these events show it is much more common for honorary degrees to be rescinded as previous misdemeanours of various celebrities, politicians and sports stars emerge and entail reappraisal of their merits. This does suggest that universities should perhaps undertake a little more due diligence in relation to individuals they intend to honour to ensure there are no skeletons likely to emerge from the closet of the newly honoured personage. Alternatively, as some have suggested, universities could decide to defer the award of an honorary degree until some years after the proposed recipient’s death in order to be more confident that there are no unsavoury issues about their conduct waiting to be made public. In general though it would probably be better for everyone if there were more genuinely worthy honorary degree beneficiaries and fewer revocations.

One response to “All the President’s Degrees

  1. Or stop awarding them along with XBEs and peerages. If you do your job, recognition should be the reward, be it financial, promotion or simply grateful thanks. Some universities have awarded so many that nominations give the impression of scraping the barrel, and there are often suspicion of corruption when donors are on the list, even for honorary degrees.

Leave a Reply