Cornell’s longstanding tradition of not granting honorary degrees came into discussion again earlier this year when David Hajjar, dean of the Weill Cornell Medical College, proposed that the medical school be exempt from this policy to grant honorary doctorates of science. In May, the Faculty Senate voted against it.
Honorary degrees, which are conferred upon non-graduates, are a way of recognizing extraordinary achievements in public service or within a specific academic field. Such degrees are most commonly doctorates, and the recipients are selected through a faculty nomination process.
Cornell’s policy to not grant honorary doctorates dates back to the University’s second commencement ceremony, when then-President Andrew Dickinson White explicitly stated that it was University policy to not bestow them. Such degrees would decrease the value of the degrees earned through coursework and examinations, he said.
Hajjar’s proposal would enable only the medical school the ability to grant honorary degrees.
“Awarding honorary degrees would further demonstrate that we are not ‘perched’ on an ivory tower. Bestowing this title on individuals who have made, for example, outstanding achievements in public health or medical ethics would show the public that our University recognizes valuable intellectual and creative achievements outside of academia,” stated the proposal.
According to the proposal, the honorary degree selection committee would have been comprised of President David Skorton, officials from the medical school and a total of seven tenured faculty members from both campuses.
While the WCMC Executive Faculty Council passed the proposal, the Ithaca campus’ Faculty Senate voted against it on May 14, with 41 members against and only four in favor. In general, there is very little interaction between the WCMC Faculty Council and Ithaca’s Faculty Senate.
“Some of the folks on the Faculty Senate felt that it could be abused,” Hajjar said, “that these degrees would just be given to people who gave money to the medical school willy-nilly, and that wasn’t our intention at all … The proposal was dead on arrival.”
Prof. Ronald Ehrenberg, industrial and labor relations and economics, voted against the proposal since he felt it was in opposition to one of Cornell’s unique traditions.
“There is a tradition at Cornell that degrees are awarded for academic work, and that you only get things at Cornell that you work for,” Ehrenberg said. “And that is something that the faculty is very proud of.”
Historically, Cornell has only granted two honorary degrees, one to White and another to David Starr Jordan 1872, the first president of Stanford. The two degrees, which were law doctorates, were bestowed by then-President Charles Adams, who was unfamiliar with precedent set by White.
In response to Adams’s departure from traditional University policy, Cornell alumni presented a petition to the faculty in 1886 “praying for a reconsideration of the action in regard to conferring honorary degrees.” Jordan, one of the degree recipients, signed the petition. Shortly afterwards, Adams was forced to resign in 1892.
While Cornell’s decision to not grant honorary degrees is strongly tied to tradition, several other factors support the policy as well. According to Corey Earle ’07, a public relations officer in the Alumni Affairs Office, the primary reasons for Cornell’s policy are that honorary degrees “cheapen the degree,” are “too difficult to regulate” and have “great potential for controversy.”
“Honorary degrees can be bestowed for an infinite number of reasons. Even narrowing eligibility to those who have made substantial contributions to a specific field … leaves a wide range of completely incomparable achievements,” Earle stated in an e-mail. “How do you justify embarrassments when a recipient faces public ridicule?” he asked.
The Faculty Senate’s decision leaves the WCMC in search of other vehicles to honor outstanding achievement. Though no alternative plan has been made, possible considerations include recognizing individuals with a Weill-Cornell medal or a set of keys to the University.