The grand history and tradition of granting honorary degrees to persons emeritus has enticed the hoi polloi of American society for generations. With apologies to Aunt Josie, my Uncle Jack McCoy received such an honor from the School of Hard Knocks in the early seventies for his performance art dissertation on “Lighting Campfires Using Wood Soaked in Kerosene and Surviving” but was sadly denied any recognition in the mainstream media for his efforts.
The tradition of giving honorary degrees dates back considerably further, however. According to some sources, Lionel Woodville was the first to receive such approbation in the 1470s from Oxford, prior to his appointment as the bishop of Salisbury. This historic pedigree may vex observers all the more upon learning that Arizona State University has declined to offer President Barack Obama similar accreditation on the occasion of his commencement address there this spring.
The reason given seems simple enough on its face: they only offer these degrees to people for their “body of work, somebody who’s been in their position for a long time.” This should be fair and justly spoken in the minds of most educators. Surely the bar would be set high for those seeking such an honor without completing the prerequisite course of study.
Of course, some schools are a tad less rigid in their assessments. Stephen Colbert was granted an honorary doctorate of fine arts from Knox College after hosting his own television program for less than one year. When it comes to presidents, Harvard University has issued a number of such honors, with the last going to John F. Kennedy in 1956. Aside from his family name, Kennedy has served in the military and done short stints in the House and Senate, but it is difficult to imagine he would have met Arizona’s stringent requirements.
We should note that this same Arizona university granted Barry Goldwater an honorary degree in 1961, three years before his failed run at the White House and after little more than one term in the Senate. Perhaps they have a three year minimum, plus or minus? Mr. Obama only served in the Senate for slightly less than that.
Straw may be spun into political gold over the matter of not awarding such degrees. Arizona State University, however, runs the risk of sullying good names in the opposite direction. As Tony Campbell recently pointed out, the latest home of the NFL Cardinals has a bit of history in terms of giving awards to black Americans.
Arizona is one of the last states to make Martin Luther King, Jr. Day a state holiday. In fact, Arizona has had the most problematic history with the MLK, Jr. holiday. In 1987, Governor Mecham signed an executive order that prevented the holiday in Arizona. In 1990, Arizonans voted down a referendum that would have make MLK, Jr. Day a holiday in the state. One of their leading citizens, Senator John McCain, voted against the 1983 bill that made MLK, Jr. Day a federal holiday.
One might argue that the race card can be played in almost any scenario these days, but the optics certainly look bad for the college given their previous history of awards and the racial integration footprint of the state.
Should the president receive an honorary degree from the Arizona State University? He already has sheepskins of his own, presumably earned through the normal work routine of college life. His career, aside from the historic achievement of reaching the Oval Office a few weeks ago, was not terribly distinguished either in terms of tenure or legislative accomplishment. But by the same token, he has taken the highest office in the land with a commendable margin of victory.
In the end, it may be a question of who should be more embarrassed — those receiving such accolades or those awarding them. There was certainly a time when universities would rightly honor those who had never completed a college education, be it through hardship or lack of opportunity, but had distinguished themselves mightily by dint of hard work and dedicated service. Those awards have been tarnished by the encroachment of popular celebrities fawned over by institutes of higher learning, shifting here and there as the winds of popular appeal blow.
In light of these considerations, perhaps the key question should not be whether Obama deserves this fete. If Arizona State University feels that the current leader of the free world does not possess a body of work sufficient to merit a degree, why would they invite him to speak to a body of students who have presumably worked to earn legitimate degrees of their own?
As Uncle Jack might have told them, you learn something new every time you step out the door. How useful that knowledge proves will only be discovered after your last semester at the school of life.