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May 21, 2005

Universities honor role models

- Richie Sambora, the guitarist for Bon Jovi, was awarded a doctorate of humane letters last year by Kean University in New Jersey.
Universities honor role models

By Kavita Kumar
Of the Post-Dispatch

It's one of the best deals out there: Get a doctorate without cracking a book.

But there remains the small task of making significant contributions to your field or to society as a whole. You know, making the world a better place. At least that's what it is supposed to be about.

Area universities give out dozens of such honorary degrees each year, and this year is no exception. Former Rep. Richard Gephardt, as well as an author and literary critic, a patron of the arts, a DNA researcher and medical research entrepreneur, will be hooded today at Washington University's commencement.

In doing so, they join the ranks of other notables who've been designated a "doctor" by various universities. Some have made repeat appearances on graduation platforms: Bill Cosby, Nelson Mandela, Fred Rogers (aka Mr. Rogers) and Ted Turner are "doctors" many times over.

Granting honorary degrees to accomplished and prominent people is a long tradition in higher education dating to the 15th century. University officials say these commendations are the highest honors they can bestow upon individuals - the Nobel Prize of each school, if you will. They award them at commencement ceremonies to provide role models for graduating students, living demonstrations of the highest levels to which the graduates might aspire.

"It is a personification of the values, the culture, the core of our institution," said Karen Luebbert, vice president of Webster University.

This year's local honorees are fairly uncontroversial, but nationally, honorary degree recipients have sometimes elicited contempt, laughs and raised eyebrows.

Some universities have been accused of using honorary degrees as a way to solicit large donations. And some critics question honoring of celebrities with questionable credentials for such distinction as a way to generate publicity and excitement. And some worry when recipients without other academic qualifications begin using the honorific "Doctor" and list Ph.D.s on their resumes without disclosing them as honorary.

Consider these honorees of dubious merit:

- Kermit the Frog was granted a doctorate in amphibious letters from Southampton College on Long Island in 1996 and even gave the commencement speech, to the dismay of some students.

- Richie Sambora, the guitarist for Bon Jovi, was awarded a doctorate of humane letters last year by Kean University in New Jersey.

- Mike Tyson was given a doctorate in humane letters by Central State University in Ohio in 1989, before the ear-munching incident.

"We're not in it for the name," said Luebbert. "We're not in it just for the glitz. We're in it for substance and we're in it for quality."

Luebbert said it doesn't matter how well-known someone may be. What matters is his or her contributions - to the university or to the larger community. "And I'm not talking about financial contributions," she added. Most universities don't pay their commencement speakers, who otherwise might charge upward of $20,000 for their speeches. The honorary degree is usually considered compensation enough. And besides, it's supposed to be an honor.

Walter Wendler, chancellor of Southern Illinois University Carbondale, pointed out that it's purposeful that most honorary degrees are given different names from other earned degrees universities confer on graduates. Honorary degrees are often called "doctor of laws," "doctor of letters," "doctor of fine arts," and so on, "so there's no confusion that these are in fact honorary degrees," he said.

Some schools such as Washington University and the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana begin the long and involved process of selecting recipients well more than a year in advance in order to try to snag highly sought-after recipients.

"They are busy people, and the absolute requirement is that the person has to appear in person," said Harry Hilton, an aerospace engineering professor and chair of the committee that makes final recommendations to the chancellor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. There are some exceptions, such as if a person is old or sick. Sometimes a family member can attend as a proxy. But it's not common, he said.

Most schools select their recipients in similar ways - involving a nomination process from the campus community and deliberations by a committee. The board of trustees usually has to give final approval.

In addition to scholarship and accomplishment, a criterion the degree committee at Washington University considers is if he or she will bring a heightened level of interest and excitement to graduation, said Harriet Switzer, the secretary to the board of trustees.

"Dr." Stan Musial did just that in 1991 when the university granted him an honorary degree. As he accepted the degree, the famed Cardinals baseball player crouched into his famous batting stance to the delight of the crowd, Switzer recalled.

Joe Edwards, visionary developer of the Delmar Loop and proprietor of Blueberry Hill and the Pageant theater, has been hooded and "doctored" twice over - a doctor of laws last year at Washington University and a doctor of fine arts this year from St. Louis University.

Edwards is a humble sort of fellow - he said when he was approached by the universities he was thrilled, but a bit self-conscious.

"I kind of reflected on it and said, 'Wow, I didn't have to take any classes, I didn't have to pay tuition, I got some great meals and company out of it. It's a great way to go to school!"

Some of his friends joked with him initially, calling him "Dr."

But he prefers to go by just plain Joe.

Reporter Kavita Kumar
E-mail: kkumar@post-dispatch.com
Phone: 314-340-8017

Posted by riesambo at May 21, 2005 11:30 AM