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Alexander Hamilton To Get Honorary Degree

Even though he died in 1804, Alexander Hamilton is going to receive an honorary degree from Albany Law School at the college’s spring commencement.

Honorary degrees, higher education’s most prestigious recognition, are reserved for eminent individuals with national or international reputations. Hamilton certainly qualifies. He was one of the nation’s founding fathers, had a distinguished career as one of George Washington’s most trusted aides during the Revolutionary War, later practiced law, served as the first secretary of the treasury, and is considered the father of the nation’s financial system.

Why now? Honorary degrees are an opportunity to establish ties with a prominent person, to bask in the reflected glory of his or her accomplishments, and to generate some positive media buzz. In Hamilton’s case, Albany Law School said it is recognizing his contributions to the Albany, New York area where he practiced law and married into a prominent local family. With Hamilton currently riding a wave of rock star status thanks to the Broadway musical that bears his name, tiny Albany Law, an old, private school with only 372 students, is riding his coattails with a creative local angle that has brought an enormous PR bounce. Hamilton never actually earned a law degree, so awarding him an honorary is the perfect way to call attention to the school. Honorary degrees don’t typically get much publicity, but this announcement has generated extensive media coverage.

So how can a guy who has been dead for 214 years qualify for a degree? Honorary degrees are conferred honoris causa, a Latin term meaning “for the sake of honor.” They are typically doctoral degrees, though not equivalent to Ph.D. s, nor do they entitle the recipient to the same professional privileges as individuals who have earned degrees.

Honorary degree recipients are leading scholars, discoverers, inventors, authors, artists, musicians, entrepreneurs, social activists, and leaders in politics and government. Occasionally, honorary degrees are awarded to people who have rendered lifelong service to a university through board membership, volunteerism, or major financial contributions. At some schools, honorary degree recipients deliver the commencement address, but this is not a requirement.

Honorary degrees are often presented at commencement to take advantage of the large audience and the pomp and circumstance already in place. The candidate is part of the platform party and processes wearing a black doctoral gown or the school’s custom doctoral regalia. Candidates are hooded and receive a diploma and a citation. In the case of a posthumous degree like Hamilton’s, a surrogate stands in to accept these items.

What to Call an Honorary Degree Recipient

Honorary degree recipients are properly addressed as “doctor” in correspondence from the university that awarded the degree and in conversation on the campus. But honorary degree recipients should not refer to themselves as “doctor,” nor should they use the title on business cards or in correspondence.

The honorary degree recipient is entitled to use the appropriate honorary abbreviation behind his or her name, for example, (full name), Litt.D. On a resume or in a biographical sketch, they may indicate an honorary degree by writing out the degree followed by the words honoris causa to signify that the degree is honorary, not earned.

When addressing a person who has received an honorary degree from another university, it is not correct to use the term “doctor.”

Because many people misunderstand these nuances, it is courteous to provide recipients with a card or brochure to explain how to appropriately signify their degrees. Tuck the card in with the hood and citation when these items are shipped to them after the ceremony or send in a follow-up congratulatory letter.

So, while I don’t know for certain, my guess is Alexander Hamilton will receive a Doctor of Laws (L.L. D.) and were his ghost to ever to appear at Albany Law School, it would be correct for all there to address him as Doctor Hamilton. Back in his New York City law office, however, he would be just plain Mr. Hamilton.

For more information about honorary degrees, including presenting the degree, awarding it posthumously, regalia for the recipient, and how to appropriately host the honoree, order my book Academic Ceremonies A Handbook of Traditions and Protocol, available at http://case.org.

 

 

 

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Perception is Reality

 

We will likely never know the true intention of New Jersey Gov. Christies’ July 4 weekend trip to his private beach while the adjacent state park beach was closed due to his government‘s shutdown. Was it a “let them eat cake” gesture, or simply a callous obliviousness to how his behavior would be perceived? It doesn’t matter. Perception is reality. His beach trip was interpreted as an “in your face” message to New Jersey’s lawmakers and citizens. It created a firestorm of negative press and outrage from people across the country. There are lessons here for leaders, event planners, and protocol professionals.

Every move our principals make, whether they are university presidents, elected officials, military officers, or corporate CEOs, is only a disgruntled tweet or unflattering cell phone photo away from controversy. The university president leaves an awards function early. Some will interpret the fact as someone has angered her, or she disapproves of something, when in reality, she has to attend two more events before day’s end. The mayor doesn’t show up for a ribbon cutting instead sending a surrogate because an urgent matter has arisen at city hall. People may read this as a snub to the new business. The senator doesn’t personally greet everyone in the room leaving some people feeling slighted. They make negative comments on social media.

In an interesting ed.TED talk called, “Truth vs. Perception vs. Reality,” (ed.ted.com/on/AsddeXsA) Trevor Maber gives an insightful explanation of how our brains zoom to conclusions based on what we see when a current situation is compared against our experiences, emotions, and assumptions. Sadly, our brains often jump to incorrect conclusions because we don’t have all the facts. We believe what we see.

While we can’t control the behavior of our principals, we can help steer them away from potential perception PR disasters by

  1. Being situationally aware. Knowing the issues and political climate, who will be present and what their agendas might be. (The mood of the populace after losing their traditional July 4 beach visit was not favorable.)
  2. Being willing to modify plans to enhance or avoid situations. (An announcement from the podium during the president’s introduction that she is present to welcome the gathering and then must leave, could potentially avoid negative speculation.)
  3. Being willing to make suggestions to the boss and apprise him or her of possible situations or consequences. (People might be angered, sir, if you use your private beach when theirs is closed.)

An important component of leadership is leading by example, and most seasoned leaders do this very well, but sometimes, principals may not realize how their behavior might be perceived. The governor had the perfect right to sit on his private beach, regardless of what anyone might think. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t bad PR.

As event planners and protocol professionals it is our job to help prevent disastrous episodes by thinking and acting in the best interest of our leaders to avoid potential problems. Afterall, we are the people responsible for arrangements, itineraries, and guest lists.

A five-course gourmet meal with expensive wines for the board of trustees on the day they vote to increase tuition and announce no pay raises, is an unseemly juxtaposition and one that could easily be avoided. An astute planner would discreetly and quickly work with the chef to modify plans.

The next time the planner sees the supposedly snubbed supporter’s name on a guest list, she cues the boss and tactfully orchestrates a personal greeting.

In the case of the beach outing, a planner could diplomatically offer a list of enticing alternative activities.

Some principals accept guidance readily and others may never do so. But while suggestions and work-arounds may not always be adopted, you’ll sleep better knowing you did your best to avoid a problem.