September 26, 2007

Weill May Give Honorary Degrees

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Though the University has only given out two honorary degrees in the past, things may change soon thanks to a new proposal from Weill Cornell Medical College. The proposal, written by David Hajjar, executive vice provost of Weill, encourages the College to begin issuing honorary degrees to scientists who are alumni of the graduate or medical school and philanthropists who have substantially contributed to the biomedical community.
According to Charles Walcott, dean of University faculty, this proposal has been in the works for some time, but progress has been slow because it goes against long-held University tradition. Currently, the University’s administration has no plans to issue honorary degrees.
Generally, those who obtain honorary degrees have not graduated from the institution they receive them from. Instead, the degree’s primary purpose is recognize individuals who have made significant contributions to academia of that specific institution.
For some, the practice resembles a publicity stunt to attract high-profile individuals to speak at convocation ceremonies. Another concern associated with honorary degrees is that they would be given on a profit basis; that is, degrees will be given out to individuals who dig deep into their pocketbooks to help out the University.
Others contend that it is unfair to issue degrees to those who have not matriculated from the University.
“I don’t think it is appropriate to issue out degrees to people who did not attend the school because they didn’t have to go through what the other students did in order to be on that stage. It’s fine to say ‘we admire you,’ but it is ridiculous to think a person is receiving a degree just because he is famous,” said Rosa Kim ’08.
But despite these arguments, many students would like to see the Ithaca campus give out honorary degrees in hopes of attracting top-notch graduation speakers, an area in which Cornell students feel they are not getting their money’s worth.
Ryan Lavin ’09, vice president for internal operations of the Student Assembly, said he believes that “this is the only way to recruit notable commencement speakers, an area in which we are severely lagging.”
“In order to give out an honorary degree, we have to have the permission of the faculty and right now, it is very difficult to overturn tradition without a good reason,” Walcott said.
The two individuals who hold honorary degrees from the University are Andrew White and David Starr Jordan; the latter is considered the forefather of ichthyologists.
“I presented this before the committee and they considered it. But they responded, if we wanted to overturn longstanding tradition we would like to know why. They wanted to know the rational as to why the medical college was going away with this plan,” said Walcott.
However, Jonathan Weil, a spokesperson for Weill Medical College, said “it is not true that the Medical College wants it more than the Ithaca campus. It has yet to be determined. The Medical College’s policy on this issue falls under the University’s policy at this point.”
The proposal is being worked on by a small committee of two faculty members from Ithaca and two from Weill. Currently, there is no set deadline for the committee to present its proposal. One of the biggest issues the committee needs to work out is the criteria for awarding honorary degrees.
Walcott had hoped that the committee would have been able to hammer out the details by the end of last year, so they could immediately begin working on it at the beginning of this year. Unfortunately, this plan was derailed.
“We had these discussions last spring with the hope that we could pick up where we left off in the beginning of the fall semester,” Walcott said. “The sooner the better.”
For the proposal to go through, a majority vote needs to be obtained in the Committee on Academic Programs and Priorities. Because this is such a change from tradition, Walcott said this issue would require the entire faculty’s input. The issue would be put to ballot through the mail so everyone has the opportunity to vote.
“I think it is in Cornell’s tradition to recognize revolutionary ideas,” said Steven Matthews ’10. “And it is in-line with our belief to honor such thinking with these degrees.”
Along with Cornell, institutions like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Virginia also abstain from issuing honorary degrees. MIT founder William Barton Rogers was known to liken the practice to “literary almsgiving … of spurious merit and noisy popularity.”