Honorary doctorates should not be in service of ethnicity

It has been six centuries since the practice of handing out an honorary degree started in Europe. An honorary doctorate is higher education’s most significant accolade. It is the recognition bestowed on a recipient who did not complete the typical requirements for such a degree.

It is often a way of recognising a person’s tireless conviction, profound achievements and contributions to society in a particular field. The recipient’s educational background is not important for awarding an honorary degree.

Except for some elite universities that prohibit the awarding of honorary degrees as a matter of policy, most higher education institutions seem to agree on the importance of recognising people who have made remarkable contributions to society. However, there are lots of controversies regarding the practice of awarding honorary degrees.

In 2022, University World News published an insightful scholarly discussion regarding an overview of honorary degrees in Ethiopia.

Although the awarding of honorary degrees started in the 1990s, in the past five years it has become a point of discussion among scholars, media and society at large.

Who should award honorary degrees?

The relevant Ethiopian higher education proclamation states that institutions can award honorary degrees to persons of outstanding achievements or contributions to society. No higher education directive provides further guidance and details.

The absence of such a document gave individual universities leeway to develop their own guidelines for the awarding of honorary degrees.

People also argue that some of the honorary degree recipients do not deserve a doctorate and suggest that universities award honorary masters degrees instead.

Although it is much less common compared to honorary doctorate degrees, some universities award honorary masters degrees. In Ethiopia, the higher education proclamation does not clearly state the levels of honorary degrees and universities have not awarded an honorary masters degree so far.

Do honorary degrees confer titles?

Similarly to other parts of the world, the other controversy in Ethiopia is whether the honorary degree recipients are entitled to use the title ‘doctor’. Although many scholars strongly agree that, unlike an earned doctorate, an honorary doctorate doesn’t confer titles, recipients tend to use the title ‘doctor’ or, often, ‘honorary doctor’ before or after their names.

In many countries across the globe, recipients of an honorary doctorate degree do not normally use the formal title of ‘doctor’. Most universities also clearly state that the awarding of an honorary degree does not give the recipient the right or privilege to use the title ‘doctor’. In Ethiopia, there is no rule against its usage both in the higher education proclamation and respective universities’ senate rules.

Universities that award honorary degrees do refer to their recipient as ‘honorary doctors’. The news media also refers to the recipients as ‘honorary doctors’ and some recipients are not happy when they are not called ‘honorary doctor’. This may be because the title ‘doctor’ still commands respect in Ethiopian society, although the respect is not as it used to be.

Can honorary degrees be conferred in absentia?

Most universities across the world require the honouree to be present at the time the degree is conferred, and this is indicated in their guideline for the award of honorary doctorate degrees.

Such a request is more than a tradition and a protocol. It serves several important purposes, including inspiring attendees, attracting media attention and generating positive publicity for the university as well as enhancing the graduation ceremony.

In Ethiopia, some people strongly argue that the honorary doctorate degree recipient should attend commencement. However, there is no set rule regarding this and there are cases where honorary doctorates are conferred in absentia.

Awarding based on what?

The criteria for awarding honorary degrees could vary among institutions, and different universities may have different requirements for granting such degrees. There are controversies around the criteria used for awarding honorary degrees in many universities across the globe.

This includes handing out honorary degrees to politicians and wealthy people who have not made a profound contribution to scholarship or society. This is often the case when the recipient is a known political figure – for instance, the late Zimbabwean president, Robert Mugabe, and former US president George W Bush. The controversies appear to be fewer when honorary doctorates are awarded in the fields of arts and sports.

Ethiopian universities have honoured sports stars, usually athletes, and have awarded degrees in the field of arts to musicians and writers. Although one expects this to be less contentious, that is far from the reality on the ground.

In Ethiopia, the emerging trend is to award honorary degrees based on ethnic affiliations. Most universities tend to award persons who are part of ethnic groups in the area where the university is geographically located. This has drawn criticism and has several negative consequences.

First, it ridicules the values associated with honorary degrees. Second, it is against the wisdom and fundamental values of the academic integrity of universities. Third, and most importantly, it exacerbates existing ethnic-related problems and has a significant negative impact on national unity, which is already at risk.

Unfortunately, universities are trapped in ethnic politics and are playing their part in intensifying the politicisation of ethnicity, which is a major challenge that the country faces due to the ethnic political and administrative system.

What can be done to address controversies?

Honorary degrees are meant to honour individuals for their exceptional achievements, regardless of their background. Therefore, a university’s decision to award honorary degrees should be based on the person’s accomplishments and contributions to society or a particular field, rather than their ethnic or political affiliation.

Universities should maintain integrity in the process of awarding honorary degrees and be cognisant of the consequences of the current malpractices. The ministry of education should take the lead in addressing this challenge before it undermines universities’ credibility and becomes a source of disunity.

As stakeholders deliberate, they may focus on controversies and major challenges, including eligibility (politicians and government officials during their term of office), ethnic-affiliated nominations, conferring honorary degrees in absentia and the possibility of awarding honorary degrees other than doctorates.

For example, at the University of Bath in the United Kingdom, an honorary masters degree is “a means of recognising exceptional and direct contributions by staff to the life of the university community”.

The ministry of education, the consortium of Ethiopian Public Universities, or other independent organisations such as the Ethiopian Academy of Sciences should ideally create a platform to deliberate on the purpose, principles and general procedures for conferring honorary degrees – and do it soon.

Dr Abebaw Yirga Adamu is an associate professor of higher education at Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia. He was director of the Ethiopian Institute for Higher Education, a Global Dialogue fellow of NAFSA: Association of International Educators (2019-21), and International Research and Exchanges Board, or IREX, university administration support programme research management fellow. He can be contacted at