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Should the UI do away with honorary doctorates?

BY DI EDITORIAL STAFF | MAY 03, 2011 7:20 AM

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YES

While professionals such as journalist Tom Brokaw and attorney Arthur Neu have certainly contributed much hard work and knowledge to their fields, is this deserving of a doctorate degree?

The University of Iowa seems to think so. Those professionals and many others have been granted honorary doctorates by the UI since the university reinstated the practice in 1996.

But doctorates should not be honorary. They should be bestowed upon those who have put in years of college research work, contributed to academic development though their dissertations, and vowed to dedicate their lives to scholarly endeavors.

An honorary doctorate doesn't automatically grant academic scholarship or merit, but receipt of one carries an assumed aura of respect and dignity. However, this false perception of academic valor tarnishes doctorates earned through academic merit. Persons such as profiteering televangelist Billy Graham have been granted honorary doctorates. George W. Bush was awarded an honorary doctorate from Yale, where he earned his undergraduate degree.

If the purpose of an honorary doctorate is to acknowledge the accomplishments of a person, most often in connection with the granting university in some way, why not establish a distinguished award? Former Iowa Rep. Richard Myers will receive an honorary doctorate from the UI at the spring 2011 College of Liberal Arts and Sciences commencement ceremony. Myers was the owner of several Iowa City and Coralville businesses, served as the mayor of Coralville, served on the Iowa City Chamber of Commerce, and held many other governmental positions. Though these are noble accolades, they are more deserving of a special award than an academic distinction.

Some hold degrees in their field, such as UI 2007 honorary doctorate recipient Ignacio Ponseti. Ponseti was a professor of orthopaedics at the UI Carver College of Medicine and developed a method to cure club foot. A doctor of medicine, he was undoubtedly deserving of public recognition and awards — but why grant him a doctorate when he was already a professor?

Honorary doctorates are either redundant or unnecessarily bestowed depending upon the recipient.

In place of these superfluous degrees, distinguished awards should appropriately be presented instead.

— Emily Inman

NO

Don't worry, it's not like Ashton Kutcher will be performing lobotomies.

These honorary doctorates are usually awarded to well-qualified individuals who have demonstrated nothing short of exceptionalism. The two alumni being honored this year do much to support this notion.

Jerre L. Stead was the CEO of AT&T Global Business Communications System and helped the UI establish the Stead Technology Services Group, which is inarguably more impressive than going to eight years of graduate school.

Richard Meyers was born in Iowa City, acted as mayor of Coralville, and was elected to the Iowa House of Representatives in 1994. Sure: Call yourself a doctor if you want, Mr. Meyers.

They probably won't even force people to call them "doctor," considering that their self-esteem is presumably healthier than that of "Dr." Doe, the middle-school English teacher. What they will do is either increase or continue their generous donations to the University of Iowa, which keeps your tuition from increasing even more. (Yea, politics.) And the UI's recognition of their commendable expertise will only bolster their support of our institution.

For anyone taking exception to this recognition or taken aback by its logistics, compare it to a UI Honors designation on an undergraduate degree. If a student maintains a 3.5 grade-point average and writes a thesis, he or she graduates with Honors; if a student becomes the CEO of a major international corporation and donates a butt ton of money, he or she gets to be called "doctor."

What's the worst that can happen? Not much.

(Wait: Stead lists his prefix as "Dr." on a flight reservation and is awarded an empty first-class seat near the front of the plane by a cautious pilot, who ends up choking on a pretzel mid-flight. No, no, that doesn't work — he would have been in first-class, anyway.)

As long as the university maintains a high standard for honorary-doctorate recipients and the degrees continue to come sans surgical licenses, there is little reason for the UI, or any university, to discontinue them. Nobody's proposing it, and nobody should.

It would be interesting to hear Dr. Kutcher's acceptance speech at graduation.

— Chris Steinke


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