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Return to sender: more honorary degrees are being revoked

Honorary degrees are a nice bit of press coverage for all concerned - but what happens when they need to be returned or revoked. Paul Greatrix considers what happens when honorary degrees go bad.
This article is more than 6 years old

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

I’ve written here before about the issue of Honorary Degree revocation – until quite recently it really was very unusual for an honorary to be revoked although, as I’ve previously noted there is the classic case of Robert Mugabe’s degree being withdrawn by Edinburgh University back in 2007.

Then there is this one from the archives I have only recently discovered, a revocation from 30 years ago when Keele University withdrew the Honorary Degree it had awarded to Kurt Waldheim in 1980 following the evidence which had emerged about his wartime record.

Most strikingly there have been the revocations of many of Bill Cosby’s 60 honorary awards and the speedy withdrawal a short while ago of Donald Trump’s degree by Robert Gordon University as this report notes:

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 ethos 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.”

Other noteworthy examples previously cited here:

  • Jimmy Savile’s honorary degree was rescinded by Bedfordshire in 2012
  • Fred Goodwin did not have his revoked by St Andrews. but Constance Briscoe’s honorary was revoked by Wolverhampton
  • Oscar Pistorius had his honorary from Strathclyde withdrawn
  • De Montfort University revoked Sepp Blatter’s degree back in 2015.

And then we have this recent rash of revocations:

It is evidently becoming much more common for honorary degrees to be rescinded. There will undoubtedly be more as celebrities, sports stars, politicians and other noteworthy individuals who have previously been honoured are discovered to have committed offences of one kind or another which make them, in hindsight, unsuitable recipients of university awards.

All of which raises two important questions:

1. Shouldn’t universities be a little more diligent in their investigations into the track records of individuals they intend to honour?
2. How should universities proceed when there are calls to reconsider or rescind an honorary degree award?

This interesting essay on the award and revocation of honoraries was prompted by the Cosby scandal from a couple of years ago and covers both of these issues sensibly (and at some length). In particular, the author proposes a formal process for revocation:

Given the problems with the Cosby situation, it seems wise indeed to craft a written solution for when an honorary degree can and should be revoked and the process that is required to make that happen wisely. That would fill an existing void and facilitate action in the rare case in which it is needed. Developing such a document or documents, however, is easier said than done. We must be cautious about setting criteria that are so broad that almost any honorary degree can be withdrawn in a changed or changing political environment. Yet, if we are too specific and target the criteria to fit Bill Cosby or a Cosby-like situation, we are not providing solutions for situations down the road. In some ways, the dilemmas here resemble the question of whether named buildings, murals and statutes of individuals who were honored in their time but were slave owners or robber barons or misogynists (among other things) should be eradicated.

She continues, with some interesting questions around governance:

Who should decide whether an honorary degree should be withdrawn and by what voting margin (simple majority or supermajority)? What role, if any, should the president or chancellor play in recommending or championing a degree rescission? What role can and should faculty members and current or graduated students play? Trustees or members of a governing board?
Then there are issues surrounding the timing of the deeds leading to a rescission decision. Are the causes related to events before or after the actual honorary degree was awarded? Does an honorary degree confer ongoing obligations for the recipient, or it is an award for past deeds and actions?

(Note that the University of Edinburgh did establish a committee to consider the Mugabe case mentioned earlier.)

It’s getting more challenging out there for universities considering conferring honorary awards on meritorious individuals. One way round the whole problem, which has been suggested by some, is to defer the award of an honorary degree until some years after the proposed recipient’s death in order to be confident (at least somewhat) that there aren’t dark secrets to be revealed which would require subsequent revocation. It would make for less effusive acceptance speeches at graduation but perhaps that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

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