I have always been mildly puzzled by the institution of the honorary degree. Prizes in general I think are a dubious commodity, but at least one can understand them: they exist for the purpose of being conferred. Academic degrees, though, normally have to be worked for. They’re given in recognition of the successful completion of a course of study or the production of a work of scholarship duly vetted by those already admitted to the fraternity. I am the humble possessor of three such degrees, and I can attest that they do indeed require labor.
An honorary degree, though, is one bestowed on someone who hasn’t worked for it. It’s a sort of prize for having done something else. Sometimes, the something else is having made a lot of money and given some of it to the granting institution. Occasionally, it’s in the hope the degree recipient will give money, or access to influence in high places; in other words, as an enticement, or, in less polite language, a bribe. This doesn’t make those who have worked for their degrees feel them to be more valuable or selective.
Where such motives are not at issue, at least directly, honorary degrees are ritual exchanges of prestige. So-and-so has achieved great distinction in some nonacademic walk of life, occasionally as a robber baron or war criminal but perhaps as an artist, scientist, athlete or politician. The granting institution confers some of its own prestige on the honoree, and receives in turn a tincture of whatever prestige — or notoriety — said honoree has earned.
Sometimes, a political statement is being made, which is why people such as Desmond Tutu and Elie Wiesel are honored so often. During the reign of Constantine Papadakis, after Drexel had unctuously hosted a visit by the then-President of China, Jiang Zemin, on whose hands the blood of the Tiananmen massacre was still fairly fresh, I suggested that it award its next honorary degree to a prominent Chinese dissident. This proposal received no second. Perhaps that was just as well, because I have now come to the conclusion that honorary degrees are simply a bad idea — bad for the recipient, who is given something he hasn’t earned, and bad for universities, because it cheapens the value of degrees actually earned. It also, on occasion, involves universities in controversies they would do well to stay out of.
A case in point is the current fracas over the decision to deny an honorary doctorate to the playwright Tony Kushner by the City College of New York. Such decisions typically require the consent of university boards of trustees. On this occasion, a dissent to the proposed award of a degree to Kushner by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice was voiced by a trustee, Jeffrey S. Weisenfeld, who was unexpectedly joined by four other trustees. The board decided to shelve the nomination, which lacked the required three-quarters vote of approval.
Weisenfeld, an investment banker and political advisor to former Governor George Patacki, had no expertise on the subject of Kushner’s plays; but then, neither did a college of criminal justice. His objection was to certain political views expressed by Kushner on the subject of Israel and the Palestinians. Kushner, himself a Jew, is on record as having denounced Israel for having practiced “ethnic cleansing” against the Arab population of Palestine during its war of independence, and of continuing to practice, what amounts to today as, cultural genocide toward Palestinians.
The background to this episode must be noted. Two years ago, John Jay gave a medal to Mary Robinson, who had presided over a conference on racism in Durban, South Africa that had degenerated into a crude exercise in anti-Semitism and from which the United States had withdrawn. Weisenfeld had registered his objections to that award, but, having no formal say in the matter, found himself brushed off by John Jay’s president, Jeremy Travers. So there was institutional history here, and on Weisenfeld’s part, bruised feelings.
All politically correct hell broke loose. CUNY’s decision was denounced in a New York Times editorial. Calls came for Weisenfeld’s resignation. Kushner, for his part, said that his views had been misrepresented. He also received a huge windfall of publicity for his new play, which has just opened in New York.
Tony Kushner has already received 15 honorary degrees, and a 16th would certainly be of marginal utility to him. John Jay wouldn’t be getting much luster for joining a line as long as it is to honor a playwright whose one significant work, overlong and over praised, is nearly 20 years old. You have to think a political agenda was in play; in fact, John Jay’s faculty senate cited Kushner’s “work” as a public intellectual — in other words, his political opinions — as a prime reason for proposing to honor him. The idea backfired. However this dust-up ends, it’s going to leave egg on CUNY’s face.
I don’t imagine the university as an ivory tower isolated from the world of politics. I think, in fact, that it can be a distinctive and even indispensable arena for engaging it. But it has no business sponsoring anyone’s opinions as an institution, whether by direct citation or, as in this case, by implication (Kushner had been embroiled in a similar controversy at Brandeis in 2006). If John Jay’s faculty wants to commend Tony Kushner, it should do so by resolution of its own, and take whatever heat results on its own head. Better yet, it should get out of the awards business entirely. A university is a very proper place to debate differences of political opinion and action. It is no place at all to honor opinion as such.
Robert Zaller is a professor of history. He can be reached at [email protected].