UI hopes to expand honorary degrees

BY CASSIDY RILEY | MAY 07, 2013 5:00 AM

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In recent years, the University of Iowa has given honorary degrees to individuals in a very narrow range of academic disciplines.

In comparison with other Big Ten schools, the UI gives fewer honorary degrees, but James Torner, the head of the Honorary Degrees Committee, said officials want to make sure they are more focused on to whom they are being awarded.

“We want people from the arts, from the sciences, from the humanities,” he said. “What we’ve see in [recent years] is a more narrow spectrum.”

Since 2011, when Torner became the head of the panel, five of the six degrees that have been awarded have related in some way to state politics or developing the UI.

Torner spoke at the Faculty Senate meeting on April 30 to encourage more faculty involvement in the nomination process. He said he plans to speak with the emeritus faculty and the University Club. 

“The committee would like to have a larger pool to consider,” he said. “My hope was through the Faculty Senate was they will take the message back to the faculty of the university colleges.”

Despite areas in which Torner thinks the UI could improve, Associate Provost Tom Rice said the one thing he is not concerned about is the number of degrees awarded each year.

“I don’t think we want to get into a habit of giving more than a handful each year,” he said. “If we gave honorary degrees to dozens of people every year, I think it would be difficult to … truly appreciate what they’ve done.”

Between 1969 and 1981, the university awarded only two honorary degrees, and between 1981 and 2006, none were awarded. Rice said he is not entirely sure why, but Pete Reilly, the head of the Iowa State University Honorary Degree Committee, said historically, there have been controversies over people getting honorary degrees for corrupt reasons. He thinks this may have something to do with why the UI stopped giving them.

“We went for years without giving any,” Reilly said. “You run into the risk of abuse if you’re not careful, and that’s why these things often stop.”

Other Big Ten schools, such as the University of Michigan, have historically given far more honorary degrees than the UI.

“Generally, it’s between seven [to] nine degrees are awarded each year,” said John Godfrey, the secretary of the University of Michigan’s Honorary Degree Committee. “Scale is one reason for this.”

The UI has 12 colleges, and the University of Michigan has 19. Members of the UI Honorary Degree Committee also stressed that they primarily want to recognize those affiliated with the state or university in some way.

“I think the purpose is to demonstrate to our current students the success and the accomplishments of past alumni and have them serve as a role model to existing students,” said Daniel Collins, a member of the UI Honorary Degrees Committee.

Kelly Kish, the deputy chief of staff to the president of Indiana University, said officials there are less concerned about how closely connected the recipient of the award is to the university or the state. Indiana gave out seven honorary degrees in 2012 while the UI only gave out three.

“The faculty always reiterate that it’s so important to demonstrate the breadth of expertise, and although some of these folks have little connection to the university,” she said. “But when they come to campus, they have a connection to an area of study on campus.”

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