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The Honorary Degree Debate

Back in May, the news was announced that the Faculty Senate affirmed the University's stance on the awarding of honorary degrees; Weill Cornell Medical College would not be allowed to grant honorary degrees -- not to the Chairman of Citigroup, nor the Princess of Qatar.

The decision was a while back, but we ran into some of the discussion surrounding the issue, and felt it would be interesting to demonstrate just how vehemently Cornell faculty felt about this issue. Some choice quotes may be found below.

Vice Provost and Dean Hajjar: (Weill Cornell): "What we were thinking about is an accolade that basically would honor real distinct individuals that have gone beyond the call of duty to support the biomedical sciences. This was basically in the back of our minds. We have all sorts of other academic-style vehicles on the medical school campus, but we felt that this would be something special. And that’s why we wanted to consider something special.”

Professor Terrence Fine, Electrical and Computer Engineering: "I think we have maintained a fairly good tradition that has not let us astray.And I would not like to be led astray at this point by a proposal that could in fact end up in awarding degrees to just about anybody who had enough clout to make it worth somebody’s while.”

Vice Provost and Dean Hajjar: "Many of the major top universities in the country they do give a variety of honorary degrees. They do letters. They do a doctorate of arts. A whole variety of degrees are given. We focused on the medical school and not other academic units. We can work together as a team, or we can basically mind our own business and present to you what we think should be done in the medical school.”

Professor Abby Cohn, Linguistics: “But we are different. We have never given honorary degrees before at Cornell. So don’t follow [other examples]. Make your own justifications for why you want to do it.”

Professor Phoebe Sengers, Science and Technology Studies: " My fellow faculty members believe that there are no grounds by which the medical college should be treated differently from all the other disciplines that are seen at Cornell. If you have any arguments to make against it, that might be a good thing to know.”

But our favorite came from Jack Barchas, Chair of Psychiatry at Weill Cornell, who spoke in favor of the proposal:

And I will tell you it is a wonderful process. It’s a wonderful process for the recipient. It’s great fun for the trailing spouse. We eat very well.

Well, in that case...more debate after the jump.

Professor Ronald Ehrenberg, Economics ILR "There are a number of principles I want to address. The first principle, which several people have articulated is that this, is one university, and we make decisions as a university, not individual colleges. The second principle is that you earn things at Cornell through work at Cornell, not for accomplishments elsewhere. And we won’t consider greed and the popular guise at Cornell as the easiest Ivy League college to get into but the hardest to get out of because our students work. And so I think there is a reason for the tradition of not giving honorary degrees, and that reason is that we do not give honorary degrees because the people are not working to get it here."

Professor Toorawa: " I think the way I would like to think about this, and I suggest you all think about this, not with an exception, in which I find exception deeply exceptionable, yet here we are making an exception for one of our units to give an honorary degree to me is deeply troubling in that I too have received many communications from people. This really is troubling to many people on this campus. Why are we making an exception? I have no problem with giving honorary degrees. I have a problem with exceptions…. But it seems to me imperative that we discuss this as a University and that we not make an exception.”

Professor Walter Lynn, former Dean of the Faculty and Professor Emeritus: “I rise to speak against this proposal in total. This interesting letter prepared by you and shared with the call to the meeting does two things. It refers to the exception. It is anti-tradition. Why don’t you guys give honorary degrees to everybody? It really is a plea to do that. The exception comes at the end. Say if you won’t do that, make an exception for us. That’s the major issue for this Body to consider at this point. Does it wish to violate its long-standing tradition of not granting honorary degrees? And therefore it makes the question of an exception really an interesting irrelevant question.
“I should point out as you do in your letter, we have good company who do not grant honorary degrees, namely MIT and Stanford. It’s a long-standing tradition for that. They don’t seem to be diminished in their ability either to attract faculty or to gain recognition for their schools’ fine scientists and physicians.

Secondly, the final issue is on the exception. If we create an exception we are in fact opening up a slippery slope to have the entire University open itself for professional activities that go on on this campus for the Vet College, the Business School, a whole variety would also do that. I think the issue for this body is do you want to grant honorary degrees or not. The tradition has been no, repeatedly done by this faculty starting in the early part of the century. Repeatedly rejected by a variety of requests to do that by former presidents, by Trustees. It has been adamantly the same – no we won’t do that.”

Matthew Nagowski | Posted on October 01, 2008 (#)

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