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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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Yea, May! Commencement Time!

Yea, May! It’s the time of year when campus events planners have the end in sight and are looking forward to some time off. The academic year that began last August and that has since encompassed literally hundreds of events big and small, is about to wind up with the year’s biggest celebration: commencement!

Campus events planners often say to me “I don’t have anything to do with commencement.” But wait, we all do. Commencement is our reason for being, without graduating students, none of us would be employed. There would be no need for events to recruit students, re-connect alumni, or court donors.

Commencement (called “convocation” in Canada) is the year’s biggest celebration, a day of accomplishment and achievement celebrated by thousands of very happy people. For many, it will be one of the highlights of a lifetime. Why wouldn’t you want to be involved?

Orchestrating commencement requires a team of people with specialized knowledge and the capabilities to manage a large ceremony involving everyone from dignitaries to proud grandmothers. It’s worth learning how to do.

For one thing, adding commencement experience to your special events planner skill set adds value to your resume, is good for job security, and is attractive come promotion time. Even if diversifying into commencement and other academic ceremonies seems a far-off likelihood, I encourage you to get experience anyway by volunteering to help. While every campus has someone who is ultimately responsible for commencement, no campus has a permanent staff large enough to manage the ceremony without others. Volunteers are always needed and being one is a good way to try out commencement to see if you like it. Besides, volunteering for commencement may yield some return favors when you need assistance with major events. Beginners usually start by assisting with line-up, helping in the robing rooms, or facilitating post-ceremony receptions.

Commencement is a joyous day and it is always gratifying to watch the graduates and their proud families celebrate one of life’s major milestones. The positive energy and excitement never fails to rejuvenate my planner spirit and leaves me deeply satisfied.  Commencement brings closure to the year.

To learn more about commencement, check out the North American Association of Commencement Officers at http://naaco.org or plan to attend one of their regional meetings or annual conference.

To those of you who are already part of the proud commencement team, good luck with this spring’s ceremonies. I have posted answers to commencement FAQ in “Academic Protocol Fast Facts” under the Academic Ceremonies tab.