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The tarnished luster of honorary degrees

There may be no more empty accolade today than an honorary degree, said Joseph Epstein. No longer are these prized parchments reserved for learned academics, leading statesmen, or other worthy recipients. Colleges and universities now routinely confer the

Joseph EpsteinThe Weekly Standard

There may be no more empty accolade today than an honorary degree, said Joseph Epstein. No longer are these prized parchments reserved for learned academics, leading statesmen, or other worthy recipients. Colleges and universities now routinely confer them on celebrities, donors with deep pockets, or just about anyone who can generate “sheer vulgar publicity.” How else to explain honorary degrees going to the likes of Robert Redford, Walter Cronkite, Maya Angelou, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Erma Bombeck? Some choices beggar belief. The University of Massachusetts is still living down the degree it gave to Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s murderous dictator; Long Island’s Southampton College once honored Kermit the Frog. This spring, Northwestern University was set to make the Rev. Jeremiah Wright an honorary doctor of sacred theology—only to rescind the offer when Wright began spouting off about “the U.S. of KKK-A.” I personally realized how low the standards had sunk when one university president called me in desperation to give his school’s commencement address. “Of course,” he added, “we’ll toss in an honorary degree.” Frankly, I would have preferred to be compensated with something useful, like a rear-window defogger. 

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