Row over honorary doctorates awarded to politicians

Indonesian Vice President Ma’ruf Amin and Minister for State-owned Enterprises Erick Thohir were scheduled to be granted honorary doctorate degrees by the State University of Jakarta (UNJ) for ‘extraordinary achievement’ in their respective work last October, but the award ceremony has not yet taken place.

It is not immediately clear whether the granting of the titles has been abrogated or merely postponed, but the plan has faced strong opposition from the UNJ Lecturers Alliance and Student Organisation who say the transactional approach to honorary degrees undermines the university’s autonomy and reputation.

Ma’ruf Amin was to be awarded an honorary doctorate for nation building and Erick Thohir for merit in sports, UNJ Rector Komarudin announced on 1 September last year for award in October.

“Giving honorary academic titles to Ma’ruf Amin and Erick Thohir is obviously inappropriate. It’s a kind of joke. Ma’ruf Amin and Erick Thohir have no academic achievements whatsoever to deserve the titles,” according to UNJ Lecturers Alliance spokesperson Ubedillah Badrun, adding that “Erick Thohir is a businessman. He has no record in sports. Yet he will be granted doctorate degree in sports. This is totally ridiculous.”

UNJ internal regulations do not allow honorary academic titles to be granted to politicians and officials during their term of office. “This regulation is intended to maintain the autonomy and reputation of UNJ,” said Badrun.

The regulations also stipulate that honorary awards should be from ‘A’ category certified programmes at the university – the top category awarded by the national university accreditation body known by its Indonesian acronym BAN-PT (Badan Akreditasi Nasional Perguruan Tinggi). However, UNJ does not have an ‘A’ category social and political studies programme for the award to Amin.

The honorary degree for Thohir is even more problematic. “For one, he is the minister. For another, he is a businessman. So what qualifies him for an honorary doctorate in sports?” Badrun said.

UNJ provides its own reasons for granting the honorary titles. “Ma’ruf Amin’s thoughts and ideas on religions and nationhood are a great contribution to this diverse nation. He shows common ground for all elements of the nation to live in harmony, especially in relation with Islam and the state,” UNJ Rector Komarudin told University World News.

“UNJ is an actor in nation building. So Mr Ma’ruf Amin is actually making a contribution to the academic world. He has everything it takes to get an honorary doctorate title.”

“The same reason applies to Erick Thohir, who dedicates much of his time, energy [and] wealth to building sports,” Komarudin added.

Thohir, a member of the International Olympic Committee, owns Indonesia’s Satria Muda basketball club, which is always on top of Indonesia’s basketball league, and he served as an honorary board member of the Indonesian Basketball Association in 2015-19. He has also been the president of the Southeast Asian Basketball Association since 2006.

Thohir built the BritAma Arena, an indoor sports arena hosting basketball games in Kelapa Gading, Jakarta, and he also jointly owned top European football club Inter Milan in 2013.

Other politicians awarded honorary degrees

UNJ is not the only Indonesian university to grant officials, politicians and other influential figures honorary doctor titles.

In February 2021, the State University of Semarang (UNNES) drew strong criticism for granting an honorary doctorate to the former chief of the Football Association of Indonesia (PSSI), Nurdin Halid, a controversial figure as he was involved in corruption cases running to billions of rupiah and in 2007 was sentenced to jail for two years.

In 2018, the Institute of Public Administration (IPDN) granted Megawati Sukarnoputri, chairperson of the Indonesian Democracy Party of Struggle (PDI-P), an honorary doctorate in political science and administration.

The following year, Diponegoro University bestowed an academic doctor title on her daughter, Puan Maharani, speaker of the lower house, the People’s Representative Council, and previously coordinating minister for human development and culture. There were many others in the years before.

Susi Pudjiastuti, former maritime affairs and fisheries minister; Muhaimin Iskandar, chairman of Indonesia’s National Awakening Party (PKB); Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, former president of Indonesia; Airlangga Hartarto, minister for economic affairs; and Abdul Halim Iskandar, minister of villages, development of disadvantaged regions and transmigration, are among those granted honorary doctor titles in the past.

“We won’t see this practice anymore I hope this year,” said Asep Saeful Muhtadi, senior lecturer at Bandung State Islamic University (UIN Bandung).

Muhtadi, a member of the university council, was dismissed from the council in June 2014 for questioning the plan revealed that month to grant an honorary doctorate to the former governor of West Java, Ahmad Heryawan.

“I was not against the title granting at all. I just asked what academic achievement the then governor had to deserve the honorary doctorate degree, which my fellow members of the university council could not answer,” Muhtadi told University World News, adding: “I was then excluded from the following deliberations although I was still a member of the university council.”

In October 2020, “when Bandung State Islamic University (UIN Bandung) granted an honorary doctorate to H Syafruddin, a former Indonesian deputy police chief, I was not consulted or informed,” he added.

Regulations on awarding honorary titles

That the awards to Amin and Thohir have not yet taken place may not necessarily be due only to resistance from students and academics, but also for regulatory reasons.

National regulations set a number of criteria for granting honorary academic titles. Honorary degrees can be given to Indonesian citizens or foreigners who have achieved extraordinary merit and dedication in science, technology, education and learning or in social, economic and cultural fields.

Universities granting honorary degrees are required to have produced their own doctors and professors; to have a faculty or study programme corresponding to the fields of the honorary degree award; and to have at least three professors in those fields.

But instead of complying with the national regulations, UNJ is even changing its own rules to grant the planned honorary doctorates, according to academics.

“The UNJ university council will review the regulation and we hope we will come up with the new regulation soon,” UNJ spokesperson Syaifuddin told University World News.

The university has said it merely wants to ‘harmonise’ its internal regulations to make them more consistent with national laws. “This harmonisation was not done to force the awarding of an honorary doctorate to someone,” a university statement in October said.

Reni Suwarso, director of the Institute for Democracy, Security and Strategic Studies in Jakarta, deplored UNJ’s move to adjust its internal rules.

Suwarso, who is also a lecturer of political science at the University of Indonesia, said this was because some “opportunists” within the university were seeking positions and projects from the government, “so they attempt to please those in power,” she told University World News.

They are often well-connected to certain government officials who want academic titles to boost their public image and reputation. “Then they have mutual interests,” she added, noting that some of these academics were only concerned about their careers rather than the university itself.

“Lecturers within universities want to become ministers or board directors in state corporations, while ministers and officials want to become doctors or professors to look decently educated and ‘intelligent’,” Suwarso said.

UIN Bandung’s Muhtadi backed this view. “Usually, after the title-granting ceremony, funds or projects come in from the grantee’s office,” he said. “Certainly, this is a blessing for ‘opportunists’, but it should be stopped otherwise our universities will deteriorate from being centres of excellence to merely being instruments of power.”

If the practice continues, it could diminish the value of the title for those who truly earned their doctorates, Muhtadi said. “It’s a long struggle and tiring endeavour. Then, all of a sudden, they see that some people can earn the academic title so easily and they begin to think there’s a shortcut to a doctorate.”

“There’s nothing wrong with awarding honorary doctorate degrees, but it should be done on the basis of academic principles and values,” Muhtadi said.

“The regulation [on honorary titles] exists, but it is ineffective,” he said, adding that it can only be effective if the education ministry shows concern.