Some universities and colleges have been accused of granting honorary degrees in exchange for large donations. Honorary degree recipients, particularly those who have no prior academic qualifications, have sometimes been criticized if they insist on being called "Doctor" as a result of their award, as the honorific may mislead the general public about their qualifications.
The awarding of an honorary degree to political figures can prompt protests from faculty or students. In 2001, George W. Bush received an honorary degree from Yale University where he had earned his bachelor's degree in history in 1968. Some students and faculty chose to boycott the university's 300th commencement. Andrew Card, who served as Bush's Chief of Staff from 2001–2006, ultimately chose not to speak when the University of Massachusetts-Amherst awarded him an honorary degree in 2007, in response to protests from students and faculty at the commencement ceremonies.
In 1985, as a deliberate snub, the University of Oxford voted to refuse Margaret Thatcher an honorary degree in protest against her cuts in funding for higher education. This award had previously been given to all Prime Ministers who had been educated at Oxford.
In 2005 at the University of Western Ontario, Dr. Henry Morgentaler, a gynecologist involved in a legal case decriminalizing abortion in Canada (R. v. Morgentaler), was made an honorary Doctor of Laws. Over 12,000 signatures were acquired asking the UWO to reverse its decision to honor Dr. Morgentaler. Several protest rallies were held, including one on the day the honorary degree was bestowed (a counter petition to support Morgentaler's degree gained 10,000 signatures).
Few people object when an honorary degree is awarded in a field that the awardee is noted for. McGill University's decision to grant musician Joni Mitchell an honorary Doctor of Music in 2004 was unopposed, although it was timed to coincide with a symposium about Mitchell's career.
In 1996 Southampton College at Long Island University (now a campus of SUNY Stony Brook) awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Amphibious Letters to Muppet Kermit the Frog. Although some students objected to awarding a degree to a muppet, Kermit delivered an enjoyable commencement address and the small college received considerable press coverage. It should be noted, too, that the degree was conferred in recognition of efforts in the area of environmentalism. Said the university: "His theme song, 'It's Not Easy Bein' Green,' has become a rallying cry of the environmental movement. Kermit has used his celebrity to spread positive messages in public service announcements for the National Wildlife Federation, National Parks Service, the Better World Society, and others."
The Philosophy Faculty at Cambridge courted controversy amongst the academic community in March 1992, when three of its members posed a temporary veto against the awarding an honorary doctorate to Jacques Derrida; they and other non-Cambridge proponents of analytic philosophy protested the granting on the grounds that Derrida's work "did not conform with accepted measures of academic rigor." Although the University eventually passed the motion, the episode did more to draw attention to the continuing antipathy between the analytic (of which Cambridge's faculty is a leading exponent) and the post-Hegelian continental philosophical traditions (with which Derrida's work is more closely associated).
In 2007 protesters demanded that the University of Edinburgh revoke an honorary degree awarded to Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe in 1984. The University subsequently revealed plans to review its honorary degree policy and strip certain figures of their honorary degrees who did not deserve them. When considering revoking the honorary degree of a political figure, such reasons as human rights abuse or political corruption would be considered. As a result, it was announced that Mugabe had been stripped of his honorary degree. The University also planned to have a more rigorous selection procedure regarding potential recipients of honorary degrees, in an attempt to rectify the trend of awarding degrees to celebrities. Students at the University of Massachusetts Amherst also asked the university to revoke the honorary degree that was awarded to Mugabe over twenty years ago, and on June 12, 2008 the trustees unanimously rescinded Robert Mugabe's honorary degree.
In April 2009, Arizona State University's President Michael M. Crow refused to give an honorary degree to US President Barack Obama for his perceived lack of adequate qualifying achievements thus far. Also, controversy was ignited about Notre Dame awarding Obama an honorary degree, as the institution is Roman Catholic and Obama holds pro-choice views on abortion and supports embryonic stem cell research.
In May 2009, Saint Joseph's University gave an honorary degree to Chris Matthews, host of Hardball. Since Saint Joseph's is a Catholic, Jesuit University, this has sparked controversy with the pro-life movement, as Matthews is notably pro-choice.
In February 2012, Rosmah Mansor, the wife of the Prime Minister of Malaysia, Najib Razak was controversially awarded with an honorary doctorate by the Curtin University for "services to childhood education". A Facebook page called "Boycott Curtin University till Rosmah Mansor's Doctorate Revoked" was set up and Curtin has been forced to close its own Facebook page. The university was also forced to delete a number of comments on its Facebook page, which it says are potentially defamatory or in breach of the commonwealth criminal code. The university through a statement from Vice Chancellor Jeanette Hacket, defended the award. She said Ms Rosmah had been selected "through a process which engages several committees within the university" and was being recognised for founding and driving the Permata early childhood centres in Malaysia, which "enable children below the age of five to experience quality early learning". However, one alumnus and Malaysian citizen said the Permata centres had been funded by Malaysian taxpayers, and it would have been an abuse of taxpayers' money for Rosmah to claim the credits.
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