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.