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Cornell Faculty Affirm: A Cornell Degree Must Be Earned

The issue of whether or not Weill Cornell would be able to award honorary degrees was brought to the Faculty Senate for a vote yesterday. The Cornell Alumni Magazine broke the decision with their exclusive story today:

Continuing a debate that goes back more than a century, the Faculty Senate has recommended against the granting of honorary degrees by the University. The May 14 vote—47 against the degrees and 4 in favor, with 6 abstentions—came in response to a request from Medical College Executive Vice Provost David Hajjar that Weill Cornell be allowed to grant them.

In a memo, Hajjar and two colleagues wrote: “Such a honoris causa ad gradum would enable us to recognize outstanding intellectual achievements, creative accomplishments, and leadership in education, public service, medical ethics, or other appropriate sectors of society, both nationally and internationally. We view this goal as consonant with the fundamental mission of the University.”

But many Ithaca faculty disagreed, arguing that the criteria for selection were too broad and the process potentially open to abuse; they also noted that Cornell’s refusal to grant honorary degrees is a longstanding tradition beloved by some alumni. In the past, some faculty have expressed suspicion that the driving force behind the change is the desire for a fundraising tool. Says neurobiology and behavior professor Howard Howland: “The tradition of not awarding honorary degrees is an old and venerable one, but as useful as ever in insuring that honorary degrees should not devalue the University’s earned degrees.”

A full copy of Hajjar's letter may be found here. The most interesting sentence asserts that, "The University should be careful that the awarding of a degree not be political motivated or appear to be so." So one would hope that Weill Cornell never intended to honor wealthy benefactors with such a degree... even if they are the Emir of Qatar or the the former Chairman of Citigroup. But we have our suspicions.

This may not be the last time we hear about this issue.

Matthew Nagowski | Posted on May 15, 2008 (#)

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