UI’s example in restoring value to honorary degrees

Entrance to the University of Ibadan

RESTORING the dignity of honorary degrees was what the University of Ibadan did at its recent convocation with its choice of awardees for its doctorate degrees, Honoris Causa. The five recipients were icons whose achievements and contributions to the society were truly outstanding. But the bastardisation of such awards had nudged the Association of Vice-Chancellors of Nigerian Universities in 2012 to call for caution, just as it set standards. UI’s commendable initiative should be emulated by other universities that have turned this noble tradition on its head.

The 2014 session UI honorees were Wole Soyinka, Africa’s first Nobel laureate in Literature, whose 1986 award firmly etched the country’s name in the global Republic of Letters; Olufemi Ogunlesi, Nigeria’s first professor of medicine; Tekena Tamuno, a noted historian, and the first alumnus of the university to become its vice-chancellor; Wole Olanipekun, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, former president of the Nigerian Bar Association and immediate past chairman of the university’s governing council; and Mike Adenuga, a businessman and founder of Conoil and Globacom.

Fittingly, the Vice-Chancellor of the university, Isaac Adewole, said, “These honorees have unarguably distinguished themselves in their various fields of endeavours. The conferment of awards to them, therefore, marks the university’s perpetual tribute to them.”

Since Oxford University blazed the trail in 1478 with an award to Lionel Woodville, who later became the Bishop of Salisbury, the tradition has become inexorable with citadels of learning the world over. The first honorary degree awarded in America was a doctor of divinity degree conferred by Harvard University in 1692 on its president, Increase Mather.

The standard has since then remained the same: recipients are always men and women of distinction. Recipients of an honorary doctorate do not normally adopt the title of “doctor.” The last Harvard honorands were five men and three women–among them a preeminent art historian; a Nobel laureate in economics; an acclaimed popular singer; a former United States president; and, for the second year in a row, a long-serving mayor. Two of them, President George Bush Snr., and Prof. Seymour Slive, were about to turn 90 and a few months from 94th birthday respectively. Slive actually died two weeks after receiving the award.

Back here, the corrosion of values and absence of national ethos have helped to corrupt honorary degree awards in our universities. The university vice-chancellors themselves put this in context, when they declared after their meeting in Keffi, Nasarawa State, in 2012, “We have also noted that most of these awards are based on wealth and political office, and as a means of generating revenue with little or no consideration for integrity.” From 2013, the vice-chancellors agreed that “no serving public office-holder may receive an honorary degree.”

Regrettably, some of the vice-chancellors have observed their self-imposed creed in the breach, as a review of awards since then reveals. For instance, what marks have some First Ladies who were conferred with honorary degrees recently made in our society?

A university degree, whether academic or honorary, is emblematic of the institution’s quality. Our universities diminish themselves when they confer such honours on corrupt public officials of whatever hue, fraudsters in the world of business, and individuals without any visible means of livelihood. As it has become obvious, these degrees are bought by those undeserving of them and pleasurably prefixed to their names, which should not be so, except if earned through study.

We believe that any university worthy of its name should operate with a set of principles that it cannot compromise. Oxford radiated this in 1985 when its dons and students protested against the then British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, being given an honorary Doctor of Law. She had in 1947 graduated in chemistry from Oxford’s Somerville College, and later obtained a degree in law. All British Prime Ministers who are alumni of the university receive such honour. But Thatcher was the first since World War II, to be denied because of her government’s underfunding of education. “I hope the Prime Minister, and the government and country at large will take note,” Peter Pulitzer, an Oxford professor, who led the protest, had declared.

The same institution had rebuffed Charles I, the King of England’s entreaty to confer honorary degrees on 350 individuals. In its rejection, the university told the king that such indulgence would damage its reputation as a seat of learning, and urged that the request should not be made again, save the person was adjudged fit by its statutes. Yet, the Crown has a strong hold on the university, with its endowment of Regius professorships, spanning over 500 years.

Apparently, there are inherent lessons our ivory towers can learn from the Oxford examples. With autonomy, a university can speak truth to power, or refuse to do its bidding that compromises the essence of its existence. Sadly, Niyi Osundare, a Nigerian professor based in the United States, once lamented that the “universe” has left our universities on account of their alienation from the culture and tradition, for which such institutions are renowned globally. We agree.

Governors like Babatunde Fashola of Lagos State, who had expressed concerns about these degradations, and as Visitors to their state universities, can help them rediscover themselves by ensuring that their Governing Councils have chairmen and members who understand how universities are properly run.

As the likes of Soyinka, and the late Chinua Achebe, at different times, rejected their national honour awards, as they considered them tainted, distinguished honorees of doctorate degrees could the same way spurn the awards upon seeing that they would be sharing the same dais with fellows of questionable characters. By so doing, they would have made a loud, clear statement on honour and integrity.

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